Deputy Laughlin was sitting in his cruiser at the Whataburger trying to wipe the droplets of ketchup off his shirt when he noticed the blank area over his left shirt pocket. “Darn,” he muttered, “that’s the second time I’ve forgotten my badge this month.”
As soon as he finished his cheeseburger and fries, he wadded all the leftover wrappings into a ball, popped them into the sack and dropped it into a trashcan on his way to the men’s room. As soon as he was back in the cruiser and had let dispatch know he was once again in service, dispatch assigned him to investigate a report of an alligator in a backyard at 1038 Maple.
Enroute he remembered where he had heard of 1038 Maple; that was Maybelline’s place and since her husband passed away ten years ago, the Carancahua County Sheriff’s Department had had to chase away every stray mutt, starving raccoon, and mangy cat that happened into her yard. But this was the first time Maybelline had called about a gator. Deputy Laughlin wondered if maybe it was just a large lizard because Maybelline had been known to take an occasional nip at the vanilla bottle, which was not helping her senility. But Maybelline’s backyard did border on a creek, which ran down to the marshes on the coast and there were gators in the marshes. So it was possible.
As Deputy Laughlin pulled up in front of Maybelline’s house, the thought occurred to him that dispatch had not mentioned the size of the gator. Some of the gators in the marshes reached ten or twelve feet and rumors of ones over fifteen were not uncommon. Deputy Laughlin pulled his pistol and checked the cylinder. Good, he thought, he had remembered to load it this morning. Last week had gone almost a whole day before he remembered his weapon was empty. He became the departmental laughing stock when the other deputies found out, but he told himself that he didn’t care. Now that it was almost time for his wife to deliver, he was being exceptionally careful about everything around the house. He not only took the bullets out of his gun every night, but he even carried any scissors and knives for her in case she fell. She found this not only annoying, but also silly, but he didn’t care. He knew the way his luck ran and he wasn’t taking any chances with the health of their unborn son. By the same rationale he had to take care of himself, the family’s primary breadwinner.
Deputy Laughlin strode up to the front door and knocked loudly in case Maybelline wasn’t wearing her hearing aid. In a moment the door slowly creaked open and the fading blue eyes of a stooped, blue-haired old lady in a daisy-covered flannel nightgown gazed up at him through the thick lenses of her granny glasses. “Yes?” Her voice sounded as weak and faltering as the creaking of her door.
“Good afternoon, Miss Maybelline. Remember me? Bobby Ray Laughlin. Teddy’s boy.”
“Oh, yes, Bobby Ray. How’s your dad? Come in and have some tea or a beer. I do have some beer in here somewhere.”
“Oh, no thank you, ma’am. I’m on duty now. I came to see about your gator.”
“My gator? Oh, he’s not my gator. I just found him this morning. Here, he’s out back in the flower garden. Let me show you.”
Bobby Ray followed Miss Maybelline through the dim living room and kitchen permeated with the lingering odor of bacon and out the screen door of the back porch. As he helped her down the concrete block steps, she asked again “How’s your dad? You never told me.”
“Oh, he’s fine. Still getting over his heart attack, but the doctors all say he’ll be around a long time yet.”
“That’s good. I’ve had three, you know. Each time I seem to get a little weaker. My doctor tells me I should take one aspirin every morning and two glasses of red wine every night for my heart. God bless him. I love my doctor. How many doctors can you find that will actually prescribe wine? I would marry him but the old fart probably can’t get it up anymore. I still love my occasional snort of vanilla though. Ah, whew, here we are. That was some walk. What is that? About a quarter mile?”
“It’s more like fifty feet, ma’am.”
“Fifty feet.” Miss Maybelline paused to catch her breath. “Well, there he is in the tall grass between the mistflower and the indigo at the far edge of the garden. I’m so afraid he’s going to get into my bluebonnets.”
Bobby Ray had to squint and look long and hard into the foot high grass before he finally caught the glint of the sun in the gator’s eyes. He edged in a little closer for a better look.
“Careful, Bobby Ray, he may bite.”
“Oh, no, I don’t think we have anything to worry about there. He’s just a little fellow. He can’t be any more than four feet long.” As Bobby Ray moved closer, the gator held his mouth open as if expecting Bobby Ray to throw himself into it. Bobby Ray looked around and spotted a rake leaning against a huisache tree. “Miss Maybelline, could you hand me that rake please while I keep an eye on this gator?” Miss Maybelline passed Bobby Ray the rake and Bobby held the gator’s head down with the rake’s teeth while he grabbed the gator by the neck and picked him up wriggling and slashing about with his tail. “He’s a feisty one,” said Bobby. Quickly Bobby turned the gator onto his back and cradled him like a baby. The gator went limp.
“What did you do? Did you kill him?”
“No, he’s okay. I’ve got some friends who work with gators at the San Antonio zoo and they tell me that if you turn one on his back, he gets quiet.”
“Well, don’t that beat all? What are you going to do with him now?”
“I think I’ll take him up to the wildlife refuge and turn him loose. He’ll be happy with the other gators.”
“Oh, good. I don’t want anything to happen to him. He’s not that big. He’s just a baby.”
“I’ll be seeing you around, Miss Maybelline.”
“Won’t you stay for a beer?”
“Thanks, but no. I have to go back to work now. Have a nice day.”
“You too, Bobby Ray, and say hello to your dad for me.”
“I will, ma’am. Bye.”
When Bobby Ray got back to his cruiser he held the gator by the neck with one hand and opened the back door with the other and tossed him onto the floorboard. As soon as the door shut, Miss Maybelline came hurrying around the corner of the house. “Oh, Bobby Ray!”
“Yes, ma’am. Did I forget something?”
“Yes, you did. Your zipper is open.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Miss Maybelline,” Bobby said zipping up his pants.
“I don’t mind. I just don’t want anyone to see you leaving here with your fly open. That’s how rumors start. You know how people love to talk. I don’t want your poor wife to get the wrong idea.”
Bobby felt his cheeks redden as he bowed his head in embarrassment and glanced down at the dry grass. “Thank you very much, Miss Maybelline. You’re very considerate.”
“Don’t mention it. Bye.” Miss Maybelline smiled innocently and then toddled off towards the front door pleased to have done the young officer a favor.
Once Bobby was in the car and Miss Maybelline was back in her house, Bobby gently banged his head against the steering wheel to wake himself up and to remind himself not to be so absent-minded.
As Bobby was about to pass the sheriff’s office on his way to the refuge, Mary Jo at dispatch called over the radio.
“This is unit three,” said Bobby in his most professional voice.
“Bobby, your wife just went into labor. The sheriff says you can go home as soon as you drop off the cruiser. Congratulations.”
Bobby hit the siren and the lights and blazed down Main Street. His tires squealed as he did a quick ninety-degree turn into the sheriff’s department lot. Bobby bolted out of the cruiser and through the main office entrance and then slid over the freshly waxed floor to an abrupt halt against the watch desk as he tossed the keys onto the watch desk, startling Dave, the watch officer on duty, who was preoccupied checking out the shotgun ads in Field & Stream.
Looking up, all Dave saw was Bobby’s wide eyes breathlessly whispering “Bye” before sliding excitedly back out the door. Dave looked at the keys, but before he could say “congratulations”, Bobby was already hurtling down the street in his own car.
At that moment, Deputy Howard and the new trainee walked up to the watch desk. “Hey, Dave, have you got a car for us?” asked Deputy Howard.
“What happened to yours?”
“Maintenance snatched it for a tune-up today.”
“Wasn’t it due for a tune-up last month?”
“Well, yes, but I kept putting it off until—
“Until Antonio decided he had enough of your crap and threatened to go to the sheriff unless you did it today.”
“That’s it in a nutshell.”
“You’re in luck. Bobby Ray just left his outside. Here are the keys.”
About fifteen minutes later Deputy Howard and the trainee were slowly rolling down Broadway unaware of the gator on the back floorboard, when Deputy Howard spotted a rumpled old man in dirty overalls on the sidewalk in front of Juanita’s Cantina waving his hands in the air and shouting as if battling imaginary creatures flitting about his head. “God,” said Deputy Howard, “there’s Ernie again.”
“Ernie.” Deputy Howard pulled the cruiser over to the sidewalk. “He’s some of the local color. He’s harmless, but he’s as crazy as they come. He’s been known to drink sterno and wood alcohol.”
“I don’t know, but I wouldn’t put it past him. Call this in and let dispatch know what we’re doing.”
After the trainee radioed in the details, the two walked patiently over to the drunk, whose eyes were flashing in contempt for his invisible foes. “Shoo! Shoo!” shouted Ernie at the unseen beings pestering him. “Get away! Get away!”
“Ernie, what’s up?” asked Deputy Howard ambling up.
“Ernie looked astounded at Deputy Howard and then suddenly he whipped around to the trainee and demanded, “Who are you?”
“Deputy Rodgers, sir,” the trainee tried to say coolly even though his hand trembled slightly as he laid it on his holster.
“No, you’re not. You’re one of them!”
“Ernie, look at me,” said Deputy Howard.
Ernie whipped around and his eyes widened. Then he batted another invisible creature away from his face, but quickly focused on the deputy again.
“Ernie, what are you doing?”
“I’m trying to keep them away from my chickens.”
“What are you trying to keep away from your chickens?”
“The bats. How blind can you be?”
The trainee looked around, but saw neither bats nor chickens. “How much have you had to drink today, sir?”
“I’m not talking to you. You’re one of them. You just want my chickens.”
“Tell me, Ernie,” said Deputy Howard calmly. “You remember me. I’m not one of them. I’m Billy Howard, John Howard’s son. You remember my dad. You and he went to grade school together.”
“Yeah, I know you. You’re okay, but I don’t know this one. He’s one of them.”
“No, he’s not. This is Steve Rodgers. You know his uncle, Bill Rodgers. You went to school with him too.”
“Oh, yeah. Bill Rodgers.” Ernie smiled. “I know him. He used to court that Martinez girl. She was easy. I had her many times. Whatever happened to her?”
Deputy Rodgers became suddenly sullen. “He married her; she’s my aunt.”
Ernie laid his grimy palm on Deputy Rodgers clean shoulder. “Good. Good. I hope you have as much fun with her as I did.”
Deputy Rodgers’ eyes flashed.
“Come on, Ernie,” said Deputy Howard, “let’s go down to the station. There are no bats there. As a matter of fact, we spray the cells for them every night. We’ll even let you ride in the back seat, just like the governor. He rides in the back seat of his car while someone else drives.”
“No, no, I have to protect my chickens.”
“Don’t make me force you, Ernie. We’ve known each other too long.”
“No, I don’t want to go.”
Deputy Howard looked over to Deputy-trainee Rodgers. “Let’s each take an arm and put him in the car.”
“Shouldn’t we cuff him first?”
“You don’t know Ernie. As soon as we put the cuffs on him, he’ll start crying like a little girl and I can’t stand that anymore. He’ll quiet down once we get him into the back seat.”
Deputy-trainee Rodgers watched Ernie shooing away the bats. “Okay, if you say so, Billy.”
Ernie squirmed and wriggled as the deputies hustled him over to the car where the trainee opened the back door with one hand while Deputy Howard placed a hand on Ernie’s greasy head to keep him from banging his skull on the doorframe. As soon as Ernie felt two hands leave his body he struggled harder, but Deputy Howard pinned Ernie’s arms behind him, shoved him into the back seat, and slammed the door.
Deputy Howard tossed the keys to Deputy Rodgers. “You drive. Ernie wore me out.”
As Deputy Rodgers started the cruiser, he asked “Do they really spray the cells for bats every night?”
“I don’t know. I’m still new.”
As soon as they pulled away from the curb, Ernie began shouting. “Hey, there’s a gator back here!”
“Yeah, sure there is,” said Deputy Howard catching his breath, “there’s probably a pink elephant too.”
“No, I’m serious. There’s a real gator back here,” said Ernie, trying to crawl into the corner farthest from the gator’s mouth.
“Ernie, I’m getting real tired of your crap. Now pipe down.”
“I’m serious as a heart attack. There’s a gator back here,” said Ernie trying to climb up the back of the seat and onto the shelf under the back window.
“Get down from there, Ernie. Don’t make me come back there. I know you don’t want me to come back there. If I have to handcuff you I will, so don’t make me do it.” Deputy Howard turned to the trainee. “Tap the brakes a little — just enough to get him out of the window.”
As the car suddenly slowed, Ernie fell onto the seat and bounced onto the floorboard. “Agghh, he’s biting me! He’s biting me!”
“Shut up, you drunk!”
“Get him off me! Get him off me!” Ernie rolled onto the back seat thrashing with both legs as hard as he could.
“We’re almost at the station, Ernie, but if you don’t calm down, I swear I’ll come back there and use both my nightstick and my mace.”
“Can I do it?” asked the trainee. “He insulted my aunt and, besides, I need the practice.”
“You just be quiet and drive.”
“Get him off my leg! Get him off me!”
“I thought you said he would be quiet,” said the trainee.
“He usually is. I don’t know what’s gotten into him. It must be the wood alcohol.”
For the next ten minutes Ernie screamed and kicked while Deputy Howard swore and threatened and people watching the cruiser rock and shake its way down the street shook their heads and muttered to themselves “Tsk, tsk, too bad about Ernie and the wood alcohol,” before Deputy Rodgers finally turned into the sheriff’s parking lot. As soon as the car stopped, both deputies ran to the driver’s side back door, grabbed Ernie under the arms, and yanked him out thrashing and screaming onto the asphalt with a four-foot alligator biting firmly down into his pants leg. The deputies stared at the gator and then at each other.“Maybe we should have listened to him about the bats and chickens,” said the trainee.