We were arrested, my mother and I, on a hazy, humid Sunday afternoon in October when I was fourteen years old. She was 37. Handcuffed, mom was dragged kicking and screaming to a police cruiser to be transported to the Florence, South Carolina, Detention Center for processing and, presumably, eventual rehabilitation. She cried out to anyone who cared to listen about her constitutional rights and other esoteric irrelevancies as she was shoved into the back seat. Our fellow motorists turned away in horror and disgust, stepping on their accelerators to escape the plaintive wails of a patently disturbed woman. I did not share my mother’s penchant for exhortation. Thus, I was apprehended with much less brouhaha. Bowing to the inevitable, I offered no resistance as four burly officers escorted me to the transport vehicle.
I had lived a sheltered life before that day. My childhood had been filled with the pleasant, dull happenings of small-town Americana: backyard barbecues staged beneath the moss-draped shade trees of Reverend Wilkerson’s homestead; hours hunched over Encyclopedia Brown and Hardy Boys mystery stories in the cavernous Florence Public Library; Boy Scout meetings held on Thursday evenings in the choir practice room near the vestry of the Florence Methodist Church; and lazy afternoons loafing in the parking lot of Kwikley’s Convenience Store with my best friend, Wake, and his little sister until Mr. Hayes, the manager, told us to stop loitering and annoying the paying customers.
Thanks to my unfamiliarity with the vagaries of the criminal justice system, our engagement with practitioners of the legal arts that Sunday left me with a sense of anxiety about authoritarian power that persists to this day.
I had never thought of my mother and me as criminals, but the local police insisted that we were, so our culpability seemed reasonably certain. We shared our neighbors’ faith in the sanctity of law and order, and the maxim “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” It was only when the smoke engulfed us that we reevaluated our notions of guilt and innocence.
If I tell this tale from the beginning, the incident really started two months before we encountered the Florence police force in the license check. Mom had driven her Chevy Nova to the Crown Theatre. While she was inside watching a movie with friends, vandals broke into the Nova and stole the car radio. The unknown Visigoths also cut the interior upholstery with a knife and broke off the turn signal control. Mom called the police when she discovered tell-tale signs of forced entry after the movie, but the reprobates responsible for the heinous act had long since fled the premises.
As a single mother practicing secretarial science, mom had almost no discretionary income. She vowed to have the turn signal control fixed when she could afford to do so. In the meantime, the Nova could not pass the state-mandated safety inspection absent the proper operating equipment. Thus, on a Sunday afternoon two months later, we drove up to a license check on State Route 64 in front of the Florence Methodist Church and encountered four police officers, one of whom noticed the expired inspection sticker. He decided to make an example of my mother.
“Lady.” The officer leaned down next to the driver’s window. His broad, sunburned face filled the space. Sweat dripped from his sandy-blonde crew-cut and cut a swath through the pimples and dirt on his cheeks. Mirrored sunshades masked his eyes, but a toothpick propped in the corner of his mouth was expressive enough. “Looks like your inspection sticker has expired.”
“What?” Mom was genuinely surprised. The cigarette almost fell from her lips. With a multitude of events crowding her life, she had forgotten about the inspection sticker.
Nodding, the policeman tapped his finger on the outside of the windshield. “Yep. Expired October one.” He displayed a single digit by way of illustration.
The toothpick danced across his lips in a kind of country ballet. “License and registration, please, ma’am.”
“Look, officer, someone broke into my car and tore off the whatchamacallit—”
“—Turn signal control.” I added this bit of trivia in an effort to be helpful.
Mom nodded. “That’s right. The turn signal, you know, lever. I called the police and I filed a report about it. It was right there in the parking lot of the Crown Theatre over near the Beauregard Hotel.”
The cop’s face remained expressionless, hidden away behind his mask of law enforcement bravado. The whole thing was boring to a man of derring-do.
Mom cleared her throat. “Anyway, I don’t have the money to fix it right now and the insurance company won’t pay for it because it’s less than my deductible.” She gestured widely with her cigarette clamped between her fingers as she spoke.
The policeman seemed unimpressed with our tale of woe. If anything, my mother’s offer of superfluous information seemed only to anger him. “License and registration, please, ma’am.” He bit down on his toothpick.
“My car won’t pass inspection until I get a new, you know, turn signal lever.” Mom was musing aloud, oblivious to the seething reaction her remarks had engendered. “I’ve been meanin’ to do it, but you know how it is.” She smiled up at him in a futile attempt to see if he knew how it was.
If ever the young patrolman had empathized with the plight of a hapless motorist, he no longer practiced such a permissive style of law enforcement. “Don’t make me ask you again, lady. License and registration.” The officer stood and rested his hand on the butt of his gun, which jutted out from his holster like a cannon.
“Well, mercy. You don’t have to act so ugly.” Mom rested her cigarette on the ashtray and dug around in her purse. I watched smoke drift up to the roof of the Nova, hang in a cloud, and finally dissipate.
“Got a problem here, Bill?” A second policeman sauntered over to our car. I could see them standing outside the driver’s window side by side. Their heads were cut off from view, but their beefy torsos, leather jackets, and huge pistols filled the window with their imposing masculinity.
“Nope. No problem. Just an expired inspection sticker.” To accentuate the point, the officer placed his hands on his hips like Superman confronting an insidious villain. His gun lay within easy reach should my bespeckled mother prove to be a more formidable adversary than she initially appeared.
The second patrolman laughed heartily. “We got a guy over here DUI. Gonna have to take him down to the complex, ASAP.” Their torsos turned away, providing us with an excellent view of their large behinds and leaving us momentarily alone to strategize on an appropriate course of action.
“Where did I put that registration card?” Mom clawed through her purse.
“I bet he blows .25. The guy is seriously shitfaced.” They laughed.
“Jesus. It’s a wonder he could keep his head up. I bet he don’t even know where he is.” They laughed again.
“Mike. Open the car pocket and see if I left the registration card in there.” Mom’s brow was wrinkled.
I did as I had been instructed. Except for credit card receipts and an owner’s manual, the glove compartment was empty. “No, ma’am. I don’t see it.”
Bored with his companion’s ruminations on the drunk driver, Officer Bill turned and slapped his hand on the top of our Nova. “Let’s go, lady. I ain’t got all day now. Daylight’s a-burnin.’”
I could see anger flicker across Mom’s face. She tried to control her temper, but she fought a losing battle. “Give me just a minute, please. It’s here somewhere.”
The officer’s face reappeared in our window. “Look, either you got a license and registration or you don’t.” He heaved a deep sigh.
Mom held up her license. “I know my registration card is here somewhere. I changed pocketbooks last week, but I remember putting it in the new one.”
Officer Bill snatched the license from her hand and stood to examine it. Again, I saw his ample torso through the window. “Hey, Mike.”
My heart slammed against my ribs. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came. My tongue tasted like metal shavings. Was he talking to me?
Before I could recover, the second officer ambled back toward us. “Yeah. What is it?”
“Run a check on Laura Martinez — M-A-R-T-I-N-E-Z.”
Officer Mike turned and walked toward his patrol car. “Roger that.”
“That sounds foreign.” Officer Bill leaned into mom’s face. “Do you pronounce it Mart-nez or Mar-tee-nez?”
“Either one is fine.” When he didn’t accept that explanation, she gulped. “Mar-tee-nez.”
“Figures.” He stood. “It’s Mar-tee-nez.” He spoke to no one in particular.
I opened my mouth to protest but mom vigorously shook her head. I shut up.
He was back in mom’s face again. “Habla espanol, Miz Mar-tee-nez?”
Ignoring his taunts, mom continued rifling through papers in the car.
“Okay, Miz Mar-tee-nez, while you look for the registration, I gotta ask you to pull over on the shoulder so other motorists can get by.” He pointed to the lawn of the Florence Methodist Church. “You can just pull up on the grass over there.”
Mom sighed. Our run-in with the law had evolved into a much more protracted affair than she had anticipated.
“Didja hear me, Miz Mar-tee-nez? Let’s get your motor runnin’ and head off of the highway. As Speedy Gonzalez says, ‘Andale, Andale! Arriba!’”
She steered the Nova onto the side of the road so that half the tires were on the grass and gravel shoulder and half were on the roadway. She turned the ignition switch, the engine sputtered, and it died. A second later, she turned on the hazard lights, which blinked on and off in a staccato rhythm, like a metronome.
The policeman leaned into the window to address Mom. “I’ll give you a couple of minutes and then, if you can’t locate the registration card, we’ll have to impound the vehicle.” The toothpick slid back and forth across his lips with lightning rapidity.
Mom was incredulous. “Impound the vehicle? Don’t you think that’s a bit much?”
“Look, I don’t make the rules, ma’am. We gotta make sure the car’s not stolen.”
“Stolen? Oh, for God’s sake. If I was going to steal a car, do you think I would steal this one?”
His voice assumed an icy coldness that, in retrospect, was pregnant with hostility. At the time, we ignored this first warning sign. “Look — you’re just lucky I don’t take you in.”
“Take me in? To jail? Isn’t that a bit extreme?”
Officer Bill did not hear her remark; he had already strolled away from the window.
“Mama, are we goin’ to jail?”
“Oh, hush up, Mike. Even these idiots aren’t that stupid. Ah-ha!” Her face beamed in her moment of triumph. She had found the ticket to our salvation. “It was stuck to the back of a picture. Oh, thank God.” She leaned partially out of the window and waved the card.
The officer saw Mom in his peripheral vision as she waved the registration card from the window. He meandered over to the Nova and took it from her. We sat patiently awaiting his verdict.
Officer Bill seemed almost disappointed. He leaned so close to Mom’s face he could have poked her in the eye with his toothpick if he had been so inclined. I was fascinated by my reflection in his sunglasses. “Okay. You’re clean. This is your lucky day, Miz Mar-tee-nez. You can go, but I gotta write up your expired inspection sticker.”
Mom didn’t know when to leave well enough alone. Had she held her tongue, the incident would have ended right then and there — except for paying the fine. Reaching for her cigarette, she sighed. “Well, okay, but it’s not fair. Somebody breaks into my car and I gotta pay.”
Officer Bill had slipped a booklet from his belt and was kneeling down by the car, hunched over his pen, when Mom offered her opinion. He stopped writing in mid-word and raised his head. “What did you say to me?”
Sensing his anger, Mom tried to bob and weave. “What’s that, officer?”
Even though I could not see the man’s eyes, I sensed his anger, too. His face had taken on a hard, granite look that frightened me. “What did you just say to me?”
He gestured at her. “Just now. You said something to me just now.”
Sucking nicotine into her lungs, Mom feigned ignorance. “Hmm? Did I?” She blew smoke from her mouth in a long gray cloud. “If I did, I don’t remember what it was.”
He would have none of her subterfuge. “Look here, Miz Mar-tee-nez, I’ve been very patient with you today. You think I like standing out here in a hundred-and-five-degree heat stopping people like this?”
“No, I just — ”
“ — You think I wanna sit here and have you blow smoke in my face?”
“I wasn’t blowing smoke in your — ”
“I do not. I most certainly do not.” His bronze face glowed bright red, almost purple. We had studied the human circulatory system in my life science class the week preceding the inspection sticker incident. I saw unmistakable signs of stress in the officer’s countenance. According to our teacher, signs of stress and facial discoloration were indications of impending heart disease. I feared for the man’s cardiovascular health.
“Look, officer, please, just forget it’’ —
“ — Forget it? Forget it? I don’t have to put up with this insubordination — this, this, undermining of my authority! You’re lucky I don’t arrest you right here and now.”
I saw a change come over Mom the instant Officer Bill uttered his threat. She had fought her anger with the strength and stamina of a lioness, but she could be pushed only so far. To my mother, a woman schooled in the culture and traditions of the South, few things were more unforgivable than rude, ugly words spoken by youngsters to their elders, especially female elders, regardless of the circumstances.
“Now, hold on a minute.” She turned to look at me, and then turned her attention back to the cop with nostrils flared. “You’ve got no call to be so ugly and using profanity and all that. I’ve done everything you told me to. I realize I’ve got to have the car inspected, but you certainly have nothing to arrest me for, so there’s no call to get all high and mighty, Buster.” She gestured with both hands, wielding her Salem Light 100 with the skill of an expert swordsman.
“We’ll just see about that.” Officer Bill reached through the window and, in one quick, sure motion, jerked the keys from the ignition. Mom had thrown down the gauntlet and he was determined to pick it up.
Despite my own well-placed apprehension, I examined her face in profile. She was petrified. Gone was the righteous indignation. Gone was the fury. They had been replaced by good old-fashioned fear. Her mouth dropped open in surprise.
“What are you doing?”
“Please step out of the car, ma’am.”
“Now, look here — ”
The policeman was adamant. “I said ’please step out of the car, ma’am.’”
Officer Mike scurried over to the Nova. “What’s going on?”
“I’m placing Miz Mar-tee-nez under arrest.” Officer Bill held my mother’s driver’s license in his hand for his colleague to see.
“All right.” Officer Mike sounded dubious, but he didn’t exactly protest. I began to suspect a herd mentality among Florence’s Finest.
“On what charge?” Mom still sounded frightened, but she was curious as well.
Officer Bill drummed his fingers on the roof of our car while he considered his options. “Resisting arrest.”
“Resisting arrest?” My mother was incredulous. “How can you arrest me for resisting arrest when I haven’t been arrested before you charge me with resisting arrest?” Mom raised an interesting point: The guardian of law and order had created a tautology, a carefully crafted bit of circular reasoning, but he did not wish to debate logical niceties by the side of the road.
He opened the driver’s door and leaned into Mom’s face. “Now don’t make me ask you again, Miz Mar-tee-nez.” The toothpick traveled around his mouth faster than ever. “Please step out of the car.”
“Look, this has gone far enough. I get your point.”
Officer Bill wrapped his hand around her arm and yanked her from the car. Mom was caught off balance and, as a result, tumbled to the pavement. Watching the scene in horror, I gasped.
“Hey, Bill, listen up.” The second patrolman, Officer Mike, sounded scared.
“I’ll handle this.” Officer Bill reached down to pull Mom to her feet. “I got everything under control, Mike. If you can’t take it, you can take a walk.”
I slid across the seat and looked out the driver’s side of the car. Mom’s purse had sprung open, spilling the contents into the roadway. A pack of cigarettes, matches, lipstick, a wrapper filled with tissues, and a compact mirror were scattered in a circle not far from where she sat rubbing gravel from the palms of her hands and examining the scrapes and bruises on her left elbow.
“All right, now, on your feet.” The policeman’s voice was devoid of remorse or concern.
Perhaps if the temperature had been moderate, tempers would not have flared. Looking back on the incident with the perspective of some years, I often thought that had October acted a little more like October and a little less like August, we might have escaped unscathed. Alas, escape was not in the cards.
My mother had lost all reason. She was angrier than I had ever seen her as she lay in the road, wallowing in her humiliation, looking up at her tormentor. The Salem Light 100 had tumbled from her lips. That was the final insult.
“I can’t believe this.” She retrieved her cigarette from the asphalt. “Is this Russia? ‘Cause it sure feels like Russia.”
Ignoring the sarcasm, Officer Bill reached for Mom’s arm, intending to drag her to his patrol car. Unfortunately for him, he had underestimated her. She was a feisty scrapper who had struggled all her life against almost impossible odds. She would not go gentle into that good night.
While the policeman tightened his grip on her forearm, Mom reached up and ground her lit cigarette into the back of his hand.
“Goddammit!” Mirrored sunglasses tumbled from his face as the ubiquitous toothpick flew from his mouth. He released his grip and danced in a circle, massaging his wounded hand. “Son of a bitch!”
If ever the second officer, Mike, had felt hesitant about the harsh treatment afforded my mother, his reservations had been canceled. Instantly, he stepped into the void and took charge of the situation, hoisting Mom to her feet in a blitzkrieg motion.
Still spewing expletives into the afternoon sky, Officer Bill pulled a pair of handcuffs from his belt and, in a one-handed motion reminiscent of cops on television, slapped the restraints on her wrists.
“Big mistake, lady. You just added assault and battery to the list of charges.” Spittle flew from his mouth as he spoke. “You’re gonna do time for this — assaulting a police officer. They’re gonna put you under the fuckin’ jailhouse.”
Once again she was frightened. “Wait a second; wait a second.”
The arrest had taken on a life of its own, and its momentum would not be quelled. The word had gone forth from that time and place that a genuine public nuisance was in the clutches of the law enforcement community, and everyone wanted to get in on the act. In short order, it had evolved into the biggest case Florence had seen since Manny Lee Law had escaped from the state hospital four years earlier and menaced an elderly couple in their mobile home before being apprehended by hound dogs as he hid in a pine tree. It was the kind of case that could be fashioned into a folk tale for policemen to share with their grandkids in the years to come.
A bevy of additional patrolmen trotted over to the scene to lend assistance. The mob of beefy law enforcement professionals, with the motto “to protect and to serve” foremost in its collective consciousness, hustled my only parent to a waiting patrol car.
“She assaulted a police officer.” Our arresting patrolman held court for anyone who cared to listen.
“Hold on. You can’t just leave my son here. He’s a minor child.”
“I’m fourteen.” I spoke with no small measure of pride.
“You can’t leave him here. He cannot drive an automobile.”
I hid my eyes behind my hand.
“Mike. C’mon, son. Come with your mama.”
“Get in the goddamn patrol car.” Officer Bill opened the back door and pointed. Still clutching his injured hand, he turned toward the Nova for a moment and I saw the fury in his eyes. His facade of civility and goodwill had vanished, revealing the cruelty that never lurked far below the surface of his public persona.
“You can’t leave my son here by the side of the road. He’s a minor child.” Mom’s voice grew ever more frantic. All four custodians of law and order moved in to grab the hysterical woman and shove her into the police vehicle.
“Look, Miz Mar-tee-nez. We can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way.” Officer Bill shook his wounded hand. “But one way or the other, you are getting your fat ass into that fucking patrol car.”
“What about my rights? Don’t I still have constitutional rights here? This ain’t Russia, is it?”
“Get in the fuckin’ patrol car.” The officer shouted as he reached for his nightstick.
I heard the sound of a car horn. Turning, I saw my friend, Wake, and his family sitting in his dad’s Corvair. They were stopped at the license check, but no one was available to examine their papers. Checkpoint Charlie was momentarily closed. Reverend Wilkerson, Wake’s dad, craned his neck out the car window to observe the commotion. Wake and Emily, his kid sister, waved at me. I waved back. It would have been impolite not to.
Mom launched into a tutorial on constitutional protections. “I have my rights. I have my rights. You can’t do this to me without reading me my rights!”
“Get in the goddamn car or I’ll show you what you can do with your rights.” Officer Bill waved the nightstick in her face.
“You can’t do this. This ain’t Russia.” Two officers pried her hands from the door jamb of the car and the other champions of public safety, Mike and Bill, pushed her into the backseat, slamming the door.
Her face was still visible from the car window. “What about my son? What about my son? He’s a minor child.”
“We should get the boy.” Officer Mike pointed his thumb over his shoulder.
Still rubbing his hand, Officer Bill nodded. “All right, but I ain’t takin’ shit from him.”
From my vantage point in the Nova, I saw Reverend Wilkerson taking with several patrolmen. He gestured toward our car and toward Mom, who was sitting wild-eyed behind a wire screen in the patrol car. Wake told me later that his father was trying to glean details about the arrest. The reverend also offered to take me to his house while my mother was booked, processed, assigned counsel, arraigned, and had her bail set, but the policemen would have none of it. They waved him on without further explanation.
The patrolman trotted toward the Nova, where I still sat behind the wheel. My heart pounded in my chest. My mouth was dry. I looked for Wake’s family, but their Corvair had already disappeared into the distance. I always wondered why the reverend did not raise a stink when errant members of the flock strayed into sin.
“You better not cause trouble.” Officer Bill shook his nightstick at me. I looked at my mom sitting in the back of the patrol car. Her eyes were wide and edged with tears. Her mouth was opened in a perfect “o” shape. She looked horrified.
“No, sir.” I opened the door and stepped from the Nova.
All four officers descended on me like locusts swooping in to feast on an abundant harvest. Arms and elbows flailed all about me. The scene reminded me of the Iwo Jima Memorial where each soldier struggled to raise the American flag. The men held my arms in their iron grips, as though I might tear free and flee the jurisdiction at any moment. Officer Bill seemed determined to leave an imprint on my skin, if not my psyche. His square jaw jutted forward, giving his sunburned face a look of fierce determination.
When he realized that I would not protest the loss of my liberty and dignity with the vehemence of my mother, he slid the nightstick into his belt and relaxed his facial muscles slightly. His co-conspirators pushed me toward the patrol car with such speed and fervor that my legs barely supported my weight. No one slapped handcuffs on me, although I don’t know if this was an oversight or if the fact that I was not actually under arrest was a factor in their decision.
In any case, they flung open the car door, tucked my head down, and threw me onto the seat with great force. I landed in my mother’s lap. She cried out in pain as my face struck her in the chest. I barely pulled my legs inside the compartment before the door slammed behind me with a resounding thud.
“Mike. Are you all right? Did they hurt you?”
“Uh-uh. I’m all right.”
I struggled to sit up, a considerably easier feat for me than for my mom, who still wore handcuffs. I had not been similarly restrained so I was able to push her glasses, which had almost fallen from her face, back onto the bridge of her nose.
I gazed around the car. We were separated from the front seat by a wire-mesh divider. The back doors did not have handles and the windows would not roll down. We were trapped. I was fascinated by such an ingenious method of ensuring our continued captivity. It was my first visit inside a patrol car and I found the experience educational. I liked to write short stories about detectives and courageous lawmen, so I made a mental note to file away my observations. Details about police equipment and procedures were priceless additions to my repertoire as a budding writer.
I saw someone sitting in the front seat on the passenger’s side. He was a young man with blonde hair and a walrus mustache. Since he wasn’t dressed in a uniform, I correctly deduced that he was not a police officer. He was looking over his shoulder at me.
“Sheesh. Dat’s some heavy shit, man.”
I nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“Mike. Don’t talk to that man. Leave him alone.”
I was perplexed. “Why not?”
“We don’t know what he’s done. He might be dangerous.”
“Better listen to your mama, boy. She knows what’s she’s talkin’ about. Maybe if I listened to my mama more I wouldn’t be in the shape I’m in right now.”
I looked around the automobile. “We’re the ones who must be dangerous. We’re sitting back here and he’s sitting up front.”
Mom sighed. “Look. I don’t want to hear that smart mouth right now.”
“I’m not being smart.”
“I can’t take it. I mean it. I’ve got a lot of other things to deal with right now besides your smart mouth.”
“Mama. I swear. I’m not being smart. I promise.”
“Well. It sounded smart to me.”
“I’m not being smart, though. I swear.”
She rubbed her cheek against her shoulder. “Well, just stop whatever it is you’re doin.’” She paused. “Lord have mercy. I could use a cigarette. And I wish they’d turn on the air conditioner. I’m about to burn up back here. Are you hot?”
“Yes, ma’am. I am a little hot.”
“’Cause I sure am hot. I don’t know the last time I felt this hot.”
Mom talked some more about how hot she was, but I didn’t listen. I looked out the window at the policemen running around in circles. They spoke into walkie-talkie radios in breathless, feverish tones, gesturing all the while. I figured that the license check must have ended because I saw one of the nameless officers waving motorists past.
Each person drove by slowly so he and his passengers could get a good look at the suspects confined to the patrol car. The walrus-mustached man in the front seat took umbrage at their stares.
“What the fuck you lookin’ at?” He yelled through the windshield, startling my mom. “I ain’t no goddamn monkey!” He was not handcuffed, so he was free to beat at the window with his fists. His reaction seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of the motorists, who gazed at him wide-eyed as though they could garner some insight into the dark recesses of the criminal mind by staring at a prime specimen of lawlessness.
Mom sighed. “This is such merciless bullshit. God! I need a cigarette.”
“They must think I’m a goddamn monkey.” The man muttered under his breath.
Eventually, Officer Bill slid behind the wheel of the patrol car and gunned the engine. We rode in silence. If the air conditioner was turned on, I did not feel it. My back was wet and sticky. I stared through the wire mesh at the officer’s head. His neck was bright pink, as was his glistening scalp, which shone through his crew cut like a beacon of light cutting through fog, warning sailors of dangers ahead. Much to my dismay, he had replaced the sunglasses on his face, shielding his expression from me in the rear-view mirror. Resting his right arm on the steering wheel, he pushed his shirt sleeve up on his shoulder, revealing a meaty bicep that reminded me of the ham hocks mom used to cook with Sunday dinner. Our captor had accessorized brilliantly: a tattoo of country music icon Hank Williams, Jr., grinning in front of an unfurled Confederate battle flag, peeked out from its perch beneath his sleeve.
We followed the Old Confederacy Highway past Tara Estates and turned left onto the main road. The Florence City-County Complex and Detention Center was a straight shot past some of the most elegant antebellum homes in town. Sitting beside me, slumped in the backseat, mom chewed on her bottom lip and looked out the window at Florence denizens enjoying the civil liberties we had taken for granted until minutes earlier. Her glasses had slipped down on her nose again, threatening to drop from their precarious position. She seemed not to notice. Instead, she took in the sights of Florentines hunched over barbecue grills, checking on the progress of spare ribs; cutting grass on giant Snapper Riders, deluxe models equipped with a cup holder for transporting presweetened iced tea around the yard; and pitching horseshoes with loved ones across the expanse of beautifully manicured lawns.
The man with the walrus mustache had ceased his tirade about monkeys. He lay in the front seat, curled into a ball, either asleep or passed out. Each of us, in his or her own way, was a model prisoner. Even mom was no longer an imminent threat to society.
We turned into the parking lot of the Florence Detention Center as the police radio crackled and came to life. “Unit 7, you got your ears on? This is station chief. What’s your ETA?”
The sound startled the young man sitting in the passenger’s seat. He muttered something and tried to turn away from the sound.
Officer Bill brought the radio transmitter to his face. “Turning in now, station chief. Unit 7 over.”
“Copy that, Unit 7. Watch out for the welcome wagon.”
“Want me to use the back door? Over.”
“Negative on that, Unit 7. SOP. Copy?”
“Roger that, station chief. Unit 7 out.” He reached down and replaced the radio as he cut behind the general parking lot and raced toward the spaces reserved for police vehicles.
We rounded the corner of the building and spied a crowd of uniformed police officers and plainclothes men and women blocking the main entrance to the detention center. I don’t know how many people stood there. I lost count at 23. The car ground to a halt in front of the commotion, affording us an unsurpassed view of jostling thighs, elbows, and expanding midriffs. I saw a microphone from Channel 5 nestled in the hand of a black woman who stood outside the car window.
“What is all this?” Mom gazed fearfully at the mob.
“Must be the welcome wagon, mama.”
She leaned up from her seat to address the officer through the restraining wire. “What is all this?”
Officer Bill either did not hear her question or he refused to answer. Instead, he slid his police cap onto his head and alighted from the car. I could see his large behind as he fought his way through the crowd toward the front door on the passenger’s side.
Mom leaned back in her seat and strained to see out the window. “Oh, my Lord. Have mercy.”
The monkeyman in the front seat seemed equally upset. “Shit, man. Lookatdat.” He pointed out the driver’s window. “I ain’t believin’ dat.”
I followed his finger to the window, but all I could see was the doughy flesh that hung from the Florence paparazzi. Whatever he saw failed to arouse my admittedly dulled sensibilities.
The front door on the passenger’s side swung open and Officer Bill reached inside. Gripping his prisoner around the neck, the policeman yanked his prey from the car in one swift, sure motion. The mustached man did not even have time to protest before he was gone. I looked over at mom. Her eyes were wide. She had been manhandled enough for one day and did not relish the idea that she, too, would be whisked away by the strong, beefy arm of the law.
A minute or so after our companion disappeared, the door next to mom flew open and huge, big-veined hands reached inside our caged oasis, grabbing her arm with little regard for genteel sensibilities.
“Hold on, now. I’m comin’. Lord have mercy. You don’t have to be so rough.”
Despite her remarks, she was dragged from the car with surprising ease.
I shinnied across the seat to step from the automobile before I could suffer the same brutal fate as my partners in crime.
A hand reached into the car and grasped my bicep, jerking me from the backseat. I fell forward, stumbling onto one knee before I was hoisted up by a half dozen arms. As I was dragged into the depths of the detention center, I turned to witness the reaction of the assembled masses at the flagrant violation of my rights. Much to my chagrin, the crowd was not facing in my direction but was gathered around a policeman, who had led them away from the patrol car. He spoke with a calm, assured air of decency. I waved my arms in a futile attempt to attract attention before an iron door flew shut behind me with the finality of a slamming sarcophagus lid.
Once inside, I found the detention center to be a formidable, inhospitable place. Three officers, each with a weapon the size of a grenade launcher strapped to his leg, escorted me down a long hallway without speaking. Their hands never loosened their grip on my arms. Officer Bill and Officer Mike had disappeared, as had my mom and the monkeyman with the walrus mustache. I was an orphan.
Looking around, I noticed that the detention center was bathed in institutional gray. Coupled with my uncertain circumstances, the colors left me depressed. Everywhere, men and women in uniforms hustled about, oblivious to my discomfort. To them, I was just another body being escorted through the labyrinth on my way to a final, and no doubt much deserved, disposition.
The detention center was a creepy edifice. It seemed to have been designed with no overall plan in mind. Hallways extended almost as far as the eye could see, only to twist and curve for no apparent reason, save the whim of a sadistic architect.
We passed through a series of thick metal doors, and the atmosphere changed from mildly spooky to downright horrifying. Sounds echoed throughout the chamber like faraway ghosts haunting a dilapidated mansion. My arms erupted into gooseflesh and my heart pushed against its cage. Shivering, I looked over at my escorts, but their faces remained expressionless. They were desensitized to their environment. I suppose even Hell grows dull after an eternity.
A few seconds later, we turned a corner and I suddenly realized where the ghostly sounds had originated. We walked along a corridor lined with inmates, most of whom stood at the bars of their doors, extending their arms through the slats, flailing at me as I marched just beyond their reach.
“Hey, pussy boy, you’re gonna be my little chickadee real soon.” The speaker was the proud owner of three black teeth. He punctuated his remark with a high-pitched cackle that was mimicked by his compatriots in other cells.
“You’s lookin’ mighty fine there, white meat.” A large black inmate smiled as I passed his line of sight. I averted my eyes and pretended not to hear him.
“Hey, I’m talkin’ to you. I know you hear me. Don’t go playin’ hard to get wid me now.”
As we passed by, every man offered a comment, each more graphic and upsetting than its predecessor. It was hard to ignore the remarks. I bit my lip and told myself not to cry. Animals can sense fear.
We passed the corridor and turned another corner. Mercifully, the inmates’ conversations blended together to form a cacophony of sound like wasps buzzing around a nest. I had walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and it was my fervent wish never to descend into that pit again. If ever I had entertained notions of disobeying the law, I was cured of such propensities that afternoon. I silently vowed that from that day forward I would always have my car inspected in accordance with state law.
My musings were cut short when we approached a doorway at the end of a long hall. The door was split in two parts so that the bottom half could be closed while the top half was open. My captors pulled me to an abrupt halt.
“What we got here?” A large black woman dressed in a uniform one or two sizes too small for her leaned her not inconsiderable girth over the bottom half of the door. She heaved an exaggerated sigh as she eyed me suspiciously. “Another one for JV?”
One of my stoic captors shrugged. “Station chief said to hold him here.”
“Now, what you gone and done, sweet pea?” The woman addressed me with her arms folded across her ample bosom.
“I haven’t done anything, ma’am. Me and my mom — we were arrested for nothing.”
The woman cackled. Slapping her thigh with her hand, she was genuinely amused. “Honey, honey. Dat’s what they all say.”
“But I’m serious.”
She nodded. “They all serious when they say it.”
“We’re to report back to the station chief.” The lead escort and his companions walked away without looking back at me.
“Well, go on, then.” The woman waved her flabby arm at him in a gesture of dismissal. “Go on wid ya big ole square head.”
I examined the policeman’s crew cut as he retraced his steps down the hall. He did have a square head. Despite the dire circumstances, I liked my new captor more than I liked the other police officers I had met. She had personality.
She, however, withheld judgment about me. “You ain’t gonna gimme no trouble now?”
I shook my head. “No, ma’am.”
She raised a finger and shook it at me. “I mean it now. Some boys come here thinkin’ they gonna run the place. I don’t put up with it. You fuck wif me you gonna get fucked wif right back. I mean dat, too. I’ll slap them cuffs on you so fast it’ll make ya head spin. You hear what I’m sayin’?”
She stood quietly watching me for a few seconds. I don’t think she had met many detainees as docile as I was. Apparently, after some reflection, she decided that my good manners and deference to authority were not part of an elaborate scheme. Turning the knob and swinging the bottom half of the door out, she motioned for me to enter her sanctuary.
I did as I had been instructed, stepping into the room and standing beside the woman.
“C’mon.” She turned and walked away from me. I noticed she was so rotund, with short, stubby legs, that she did not so much walk as trundle back and forth in a rhythmic motion that reminded me of a toy commercial from my childhood: Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.
“So what’d you do, now?”
“I haven’t done anything.”
“Dat’s right, dat’s right. I keep forgettin.’”
We stepped into a large room lined with wooden chairs. A desk at the end was filled with papers, a telephone, a coffee machine, and a sleeve of foam cups. I glanced around the room and, much to my surprise, I saw the walrus-mustached man who rode with us to the detention center.
I waved at him. “Hello again.”
He looked up at me. For the first time, I had a full, unobstructed view of the man’s stubby face. He could have been 25 or 45 years old. Hard living had etched deep lines into his cheeks. They reminded me of crevices carved into granite by the patient, unrelenting work of water slapping against rock over untold millennia. His hair was greasy and thinning, his face unshaven. He struggled to focus his eyes.
“You two is friends?” The woman seemed perplexed.
I could tell from the frown on his face that the man didn’t recognize me. He would not have recognized a family member in his impaired condition. I was sorry that I had spoken to him. As usual, I should have listened to my mother.
“He was arrested in the same license check as me and my mom. We were next to the Florence Methodist Church on Route 64.”
“Then where your mama at, boy?”
I shrugged. “Beats me. I didn’t see where they took her.” At the mention of my mother, I felt more like crying than at any time since I had been pulled from our Nova by Florence’s Finest.
“But she a DUI, right?” The black woman was more confused than ever. “How come she ain’t here? They bring all them DUIs here to take the breathalyzer.”
“No ma’am. Our car’s inspection sticker had expired. Mom wasn’t drinking. It’s Sunday, after all.”
Perhaps it was my tone of voice or the sincerity of the presentation, but whatever caused it, a change came over the woman. She stepped over to the desk and lifted the telephone.
“He just ’bout broke my fuckin’ neck.” The monkeyman spoke to anyone who would listen.
“Hush up now.” Into the phone, the woman barked out orders. “Hey, Tisha, this here’s Adina. I got this boy down here.” She cupped the receiver with her hand and looked at me. “What’d’ja say your name was again?”
“I got this boy, Mike Martinez, down here. He say we brung in his mama wif him a little while ago. You think maybe you could pull it up, hon?”
Finally, I thought. Now maybe somebody will see the injustice of this situation.
“’Cause I got this here boy and I don’t know what to do wif him. I mean, think about it. If he ain’t DUI hisself, how come the station chief sent him here? And if his mama DUI, how come she ain’t here?”
I raised my voice. “It was an expired inspection sticker.”
“What your mama’s name, boy?”
“Name of Laura Martinez.” A pause. She looked at me. “How you spell dat, now?”
I told her. She repeated it into the phone.
Adina cupped the receiver and spoke to me in a decidedly more cordial voice. “She checkin’ right now.”
I nodded. “Thank you, ma’am.”
I slid into a chair and looked at the monkeyman. His eyes were closed and his head had rolled back against the wall. If he had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, I was amazed that he could have steered an automobile in the first place.
“Yeah. I’m still holdin’ here. What else ya think I’m doin’?” She nodded. “Uh-huh. Uh- huh. Really? Okay.”
“What did she say?”
“Ain’t say nuthin.’ They got no Laura Martinez in the system. Looks like there been a mix-up, boy.”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. There has been a mix-up for sure.”
It was hours later before the mix-up was resolved. Is it any wonder I pursued a career in law?