WELL, I thought, at least the kids aren’t home to see me do the perp walk.
It was 9-ish on Wednesday morning, and there I was, scruffy, slouching and shame-faced in the back of the police car that was pulled over by the heap of free firewood on our front lawn. I was waiting for the cop to let me out of the back passenger seat, like any old serial killer. If only the police vehicle weren’t so tidy, I might have found an old A & W bag to pull over my head to shield my face from news photographers and other Nosy Parkers.
I could have been grateful for small mercies. Number one, I wasn’t wearing my pajamas, as I’ve been known to do when driving my daughter to school. Number two, most of the neighbours had already gone to work. And number three, as I said, my own children weren’t there to witness my disgrace. I’d just dropped Petunia off at her high school, and Bart had no doubt trudged through the woods to his school half an hour earlier.
Except he hadn’t. He had the plague, or whatever ailment was making the rounds this week — I can’t keep up. I could hear him moaning and hacking in his bedroom all the way from downstairs. The atmosphere was positively Dickensian. We had the law outside the door, waiting for me to produce the required documentation. We had the pale, thin, consumptive child upstairs. And we had the poorhouse ambience of our cluttered kitchen, where a pot-full of soup bones was simmering away as if our family of ruffians and pickpockets had to salvage every last scrap of the previous week’s sole half-decent dinner.
I never really notice the squalor of my existence until some professional order-keeper or other neatnik enters my environs. My first humiliation of that particular day had come when the cop pulled over our filthy car, brimming, as usual, with old newspapers and empty pop cans, worn socks and battered novels.
Mortification number two arrived when the officer asked for my insurance information. I hauled eight years’ worth of it out of the dashboard, then had to sort through sheaves of paper for the relevant item. (Police officers really do need the patience of Job.)
Mortification number three hit when I learned of my transgression — driving without insurance. You know who does that: drunks, bank robbers, and other bad apples. Not suburban mothers with delusions of dignity.
I did vaguely recall having received some insurance reminders. I certainly remembered assuming that my husband would take care of it, as he always does. But renewing it had slipped Stanley’s mind. We’d been uninsured for all of nine hours, and already I’d been tagged by the long arm of the law. To compound my infraction, I hadn’t brought my driver’s license on this short jaunt to my daughter's school, nor had I brought a telephone to call a tow truck. I wasn’t allowed to drive my car anywhere, not even an inch down the block.
You’ve gotta love a police officer who politely but briefly points out what you’ve done wrong, instead of indulging in a nasty harangue that makes you feel like even more of a schmuck. This one let me stew for a while as he radioed for information about my driver’s license. Then he said he’d transport me home so I could retrieve my license and show it to him.
So I climbed into the back seat. Despite the short distance, I had plenty of time to reflect on the fact that I was a bad, bad person and they didn’t know the half of it. In particular, there was that thank-you note I didn’t send for the ugly handmade craft somebody gave us for our wedding 25 years ago, simply because I couldn’t think what to say. I believe I stole a quarter from my aunt in 1968. I once pressed my future father-in-law’s shirt, accidentally put an iron-shaped burn mark on it – and didn’t confess.
I suddenly recognized that there’s a kind of moral interest that must be paid on these crimes. Well, I’d be paying it now, with the $600 ticket I was about to get for driving without insurance.
Here’s what the young police officer was probably thinking as he was cruising toward my house: “La-di-dee, I hope I never marry a woman who dresses like that one in the back seat, even if she’s only driving our kids to school…. For the love of God, why didn’t she even brush her hair – she looks like that Martin Short character, Ed Grimley…. Oh, is that driver over there buckled up? Yep. That dog there, is it on a leash? Yep. Is its owner going to pick up that doggy do? Yep…. La-di-dee, anyway, the gal I’m going to marry, I hope she’s petite and blonde like Kristin Bell, and – oh, cripes, is this where this woman lives? The one with the rotten wood strewn all over the lawn? Nobody’s going to haul that away for free. What’s that weak broth smell billowing out her windows? This is just sad. Man, there are some things you just don’t want to see, and this kind of rundown middle-aged lady and this dilapidated old shack are two of ’em. She probably won’t even be able to pay the ticket. She’ll probably just have to go to jail. With that Ed Grimley hair, she’s gonna be toast. And all because she didn’t renew her insurance.”
Of course, I couldn’t quite hear this thought process as I lumbered into my abode to get my license. But I know it must have occurred. After I delivered the goods and the officer used his radio to make sure I wasn’t wanted for terrorist activities, he approached the house. I rushed out to meet him, slamming the door behind me so he couldn’t detect the full extent of my hillbilly lifestyle. Instead of throwing the book at me, he was kind, warning me to renew my insurance immediately and giving me only one of the many fines to which I was apparently entitled.
So, really, then, my woeful sartorial sense and failure to cultivate an ideal domicile won me a bit of a pardon.
Let that be a lesson to you, perfectionists.