THE MUSKRAT

by Larkin Vonalt

a true story

The restaurant at the Best Western is nearly empty and the Sheriff prefers it that way. When he’d suggested it as a meeting spot for lunch, he noticed she hesitated before responding.  The place changed hands so often that even the locals stopped trying to keep up. It had been a good run for Tom down at the sign shop, though, changing out everything every time someone thought they had the “just the thing” for this dusty cow town north of the Park.  Truth was, there wasn’t really a decent place for lunch in town.

She is late. She is usually late, but that’s alright. He likes her better than the damn kids that the other paper seem to have on rotation. They always march into his office like they are entitled to something, wanting– hell, demanding details he couldn’t possibly give them. How would they like to read that their own Dad had been ground up in the combine before an officer had been out to tell the family? Damn kids. And if you needed one of them to write something, well forget it.

She wasn’t like that. She’d done some nice stories to help the levy pass. And she’d been on a ride-along when they’d found the dead ranch hand wrapped in barbed wire. Poor bastard left the safety off the PTO, and his shirt got caught. Danny said she’d been cool. Sad for the man’s family and all, but not hysterical like you’d expect some women to be.

The door opens and light fills the dreary restaurant for a minute. He can see her in the doorway, peering into the shadows before hurrying over.

“Hey, hi. Sorry I’m late.” He rises to greet her, shakes her hand.

“How have you been?”

She nods.

“Good, busy,” she replies, sliding into the chair across from him. “You know how it is,” she says, though in truth, he doesn’t. His days are quite predictable. It’s different for the guys on shift, of course but the scenery doesn’t change much in his office,  and with that bitch of a clerk he has, he doesn’t much like being there. That’s another thing he never quite understood. How could a woman like this one be such good friends with his clerk?

That was one of the reasons he started asking her to meet over lunch. He hated seeing the two women together. That phrase, “thick as thieves” always sprang to mind. Didn’t matter, she was here now.

He is concerned about some things she’s written about the one deputy. He begins to say so when the waitress comes to take their order. A burger for him and —

“I’ll have the club sandwich and a coffee,” she says and hands the menu back to the waitress. The Sheriff wonders if the waitress is one of the Bailey girls. He thinks so. Whoever it is, the boyfriend’s in the county lockup for knocking her around.

“I could use a bourbon, but I guess it’s a little early in the day,” the reporter says, laughing. “And you’re on duty and all, that wouldn’t do.” He grins back at her.  He needs to talk to her about this Deputy. He knows that she has her suspicions. You don’t have to be a genius to read between the lines of what she’s already written. And God only knows what the clerk has told her.

“Look,” he says.”I know you have a problem with one of the guys . . . ”

She shrugs.

“Well, you know, people make mistakes and all. I know some of the things he does look a little  . . . ” He can’t think of the word.

“Illegal?” she offers.

“Well, I was thinking ‘unorthodox,'” he says the word popping into his head just a second later than he needed it.

“You’re going to have to come to grips with this,” she tells him, smiling. “I am worried that this Deputy is a danger to the community.”  A danger? He didn’t expect that.

“Now, I don’t think he’s actually dangerous, he just needs to do better at following procedure.”

She raises her eyebrows, and begins to enumerate her concerns when the food arrives. The bun on the hamburger is cold. He hates that. How difficult would it be for them to throw the bun on the grill for a minute? Burger’s not bad though. She is pulling a spear with a green ruffly end out of one-quarter of her sandwich.

“People are talking to me about things he’s done,” she says.

“Grain of salt,” he interrupts. She passes him the salt shaker. “No, I mean take it with a grain of salt.”

“Oh, I do. One woman could be someone with a vendetta, two could be friends, when you get to five, you start to wonder. Have you read the transcripts from his divorce?”

“No, I don’t pry,” he tells her.  She laughs.

“Well, ‘prying’ is my job. You know that.” She takes another bite of sandwich and it is quiet  for a moment while they eat. “It makes you wonder how he passed the psych eval at the academy.”  The Sheriff says nothing.

Did he pass the psych eval?”

He sighs.

“Not the first time.”

“Not the first time?  How did he get a second time?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have any insight into the academy, I don’t know how they do things up there. And you know he was already in the reserves when I became Sheriff.”

She looks at him and her face says “Give me a break.” His wife often looks that way at him.

“But you made him a regular deputy.”

“I didn’t have any choice.”

“What do you mean?”

“It had already been arranged before I got here.”  He had thought this would be a nice retirement from the patrol. Sheriff of a sleepy little town. The undersheriff did seem to have a lot of irons in the fire and sometimes that relationship seemed upside down to him. He thought when he took this job that he would have to be in charge. Rogue cops. Shit, he didn’t even want to know about it. He didn’t know what to do  anymore.

She is talking quietly about the problem deputy, stacking up the ruffled toothpicks from her sandwich in a neat pile on the side of the plate as she speaks.  Yeah, he knew the guy was a problem, but what was he supposed to do? If they tried to fire him, the union would be on them like white on rice. She is laying out the issues as orderly as her toothpicks, he can just imagine what it would look like in newsprint. She says something specific about the deputy that catches his attention.

I wonder how she knows that, he  muses, nodding his head without even realizing it. The dispatchers like her too, they might have said something, or the bitch of a clerk. Then he remembers seeing her with the coroner, their heads bent together over a file. Shit. That guy always had to be a goddamn hero, strutting around like Clint Eastwood.  More than once he’d walked past them  talking and they’d gone quiet, he was sure of it. For a minute he wonders if the coroner is fucking her, and then dismisses it. Too much of a straight arrow.

She is still smiling and talking though, and looking to him.

“Really, I need your help,”  she says, lifting the coffee to her mouth.

“I don’t know what I can do,” he tells her. He wants to tell her that he wishes she would just forget it, cut the guy some slack. Everybody makes stupid mistakes at some point. “We’re keeping an eye on him,”  he says instead.

She says okay, thank you, but she is clearly disappointed.

“More coffee?” the waitress asks, the pot hovering.

“Sure, why not” he responds, jovial.  When the waitress leaves, he leans in towards the reporter. “When I was in high school, in — ”

She names the town, outside Billings.

“Right. Late one afternoon I was out with a bunch of guys. We were young and stupid, you know how guys are. Well, maybe you don’t.”  He sips the coffee, burns his tongue.  Damn. “Anyway, we caught this muskrat down at the edge of the river. It almost seemed tame. You know for such a fat little thing they can run like a sonofabitch.  So, we caught this muskrat and tied a rope around and followed it around along the riverbank for a while.   Then one of the guys decides that we should tie it to the back of the pickup and see how fast it can go.” He doesn’t look at her as he talks, studying his hands instead.

“And we start to drive around. After a little while the muskrat starts to scream, like a rabbit you know?” He looks up and she nods. Her face is totally neutral. “The guys are all laughing like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. One of ’em says ‘I guess that muskrat don’t run so fast.’ I look out the back window of the pickup and I can see the muskrat bouncing up and down on the road at the end of the rope. It’s not screaming anymore. Just bouncing along and bits of it are flying off. It’s close to suppertime and I know I need to get home. When I get out of the truck I walk around the back and it’s just like a little piece of bloody meat tied there.”

She is looking at him, a clear level gaze. She hasn’t touched her coffee.

“Ah, hell. I don’t know why I told you that,” he says. “I’ve never told anyone that story. I haven’t told my wife that story.”

The waitress sets the ticket down on the table.

“No hurry. I’ll be your cashier when you’re ready.”  Neither of them respond, and she moves off.  He wishes she would say something, but she is just watching him, as if there might be something more to the story.  Something to save him.  But there isn’t.

“If you ever tell anyone I told you this story I’ll say you’re a goddamn liar.”  She nods, and then reaches for the check.  “No, I’ll get it– you can get it next time,” he says though he doubts there will ever be another next time.

“Okay, thank you. ” she says at last. “Oh God, look at the time. I’m supposed to be in a meeting with the superintendent of schools in three minutes.”

“Tell Victor I said hello.”  She nods and smiles. “I will.”

Then she is gone, out the door and disappearing into the sunshine. It takes him a few minutes to find the waitress and pay the bill. By the time he is headed to the pick-up, the sky is clouded over , a cold wind kicking up out of the north. He wonders if it will snow tonight.

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