We moved to southern Illinois. It felt like a mistake. Rina hadn’t wanted me quitting my job for graduate school, and neither of us knew the Midwest. We did the long drive from Colorado, had a flat on I-70 just out of Kansas City, got that fixed, completed the trip seven hours later. That night I fell into bed beside Rina. The next day I wrecked her car when I went to the Big Bear for groceries. A woman sideswiped me going through the intersection. Never saw her. Neither did the local cop who popped me into the front seat of his cruiser uninjured. He was born to help. We drove to the police station.
The passenger seat was covered with junk — receipts, cups, soda cans, Taco Bell wrappers, Dunkin’ Donuts boxes, movie tickets, three kinds of insect repellent. I was staring at one of those.
“Help yourself,” the cop said, waving my way. “So, what’s with the Colorado plates?”
“We moved here,” I said. That hung out there like road noise. I said, “I’m starting graduate school in St. Louis.”
He nodded but didn’t answer. “Across the river,” I added.
“Yep,” he said.
There were two pee spots on his chinos over a smudge of grease. It looked like a happy face.
We turned onto Main. He nodded at the car seat. “That repellent will do you good,” he finally said. “We got the bugs here in Illinois. Corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and bugs. You get the bugs in Colorado? Weren’t any on your grill.”
“Car wash,” I said. “This morning.”
“Gotcha,” he said. “I like a clean car myself.”
I picked up one of the bug repellent bottles. It looked local, some barn company. I placed it back where I found it on the cloth bench seat of the cruiser and looked straight out front.
The cop reached down and grabbed a chicken wing from a bucket on the driver’s side floor. “Want one?” he said.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Suit yourself,” he said. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
The town had one light and we went through it. We slid past the police station, and I braced myself for questions about the accident. But the cop kept going and turned on a side street. We stopped in a gravel lot beside a low grimy building, Esso gas pumps out front, covered in bird shit. There was one tree on the lot, and it was filling with crows. They made a racket.
“Temporary,” the cop said, pointing a wing at the sagging building. “The citizens in their wisdom voted for the levy. So it’s us and the high school getting a facelift on the county dime. It’s been six months, and they haven’t done a damn thing, but the dirty truth is I like it out here better. Peaceful.”
The front door knob was white with shit. “Damn crows,” my cop said. He wiped the crap away with a cowboy-patterned handkerchief, which he pocketed as he showed me into the building. I glanced at his name badge. It said Randy Riley.
“What’s the deal with all the crows,” I said.
“Riley,” he said. “You can call me Riley. Everybody else does. What say we go on in and get better acquainted, shall we?”
He motioned me into his cubicle. A big gray metal desk took up most of the space. Behind the desk was a sagging swivel chair with a broken swing plate. Riley sat in the chair, looking like he would tip over. On the wall opposite the desk some bowling trophies and old electronic equipment were stacked on rusty shelves. The place smelled like Pepto-Bismol. In the corner was a blond school arm-chair desk from a 1950s elementary school. The desk was scarred with a pen knife carving of a thick penis and scraggly balls.
“Take a seat, anywhere,” he said. “You sure you don’t need some chicken?” He tapped the bucket, which he had tucked under his arm. I declined the chicken and sat down in the penis chair. It was that or the floor.
“You asked about the crows,” Riley said. “Crows like us here in Bethalto. You got a problem with crows?” He flashed a lopsided grin. His face was carved in half, the top part granite, up to the hairline, the bottom part oatmeal.
“Not really,” I said. “Crows are OK. I got no issue with crows. It’s just, you know, there were a lot of them out there.”
“And . . .?”
“Well, I was in California once,” I said. “I mean, I was in California last year and I saw the place where they made that crow movie. You ever seen it?”
“What are you talkin’ about, son.”
“The Birds. That Hitchcock movie with the crows. That’s why I noticed there were a lot of crows, that’s what I’m saying. It was filmed in a place called Bodega Bay.” I noticed that my tongue was dry. “Sorry,” I said. “The movie, I mean. The Birds. Was filmed out there.”
“No kidding,” Riley said, looking at me as he reached to turn up the AC.
Then he asked me some questions about my name, where I was from, looked at my license, asked about my reason for being in town. Then he came to employment.
Rina was the employed one in our group. I felt ashamed. “Student,” I said.
I blanked on the address. Rina had found the house online. It was hard to hear anything over the window unit. I shrugged.
“So, that’s your answer?” Riley said. “You don’t know?”
“Well, my wife found the house,” I said. “I don’t know the address. I just got here last night. I was out to get some groceries. I guess I never really caught the address.”
Riley frowned. “What about the neighborhood?”
“I mean, there are lots of trees. The house has a circle driveway.”
Riley’s oatmeal face collapsed. “That doesn’t give us much to go on,” he said.
“Is it really that important?” I asked.
“Well, no,” he said. “Only if you want to go home tonight, I guess. How did you think you were gonna get home from the Big Bear, I’m wondering?”
I remembered the car. In the jumble of the accident, it had been towed off to clear the intersection. If it wasn’t totaled, it was close.
“Are you simple, son?”
I sat there, blank. All I could think was Rina is going to kill me.
He pointed a stubby finger at his ear.
“What?” I asked.
“You got a phone?”
“Sure,” I said.
He smiled broadly. “Well, call your wife, son. I’ll wait right here.”
I dropped the phone. The carpet was sticky. I picked the phone up with two fingers. The call went right to voicemail. Rina was probably chatting with one of her friends in Denver.
“Shit,” I said.
“There a problem?” Riley said.
“She must be on another call.”
Riley folded his arms across his chest. He had two sleeves of good ink. Catherine Deneuve was on his right bicep, circa Belle de Jour. Sophia Loren was on the left. The artist had gotten the eyes perfectly green.
“She’s Italian, too,” I said, nodding my head at Sophia Loren’s face, lit with joy, her mouth wide, hair disheveled, her left hand with its forefinger curled above her bare knee.
“Ah,” he said. “What’s her name?”
“Catarina,” I said.
“She a Virgo too, Catarina?” Riley asked.
“Damn straight,” I lied.
Riley flexed for me. Sophia Loren squinted, then elongated as he extended his arm for me to admire. “She was my first,” he said.
“Two Women,” I said. “That’s my favorite one of her movies.”
Riley nodded and passed me a cigarette. I accepted and placed it on my desk, attempting to cover the penis. The desk was slightly canted, so it kept rolling down the shaft.
“Quit playing with the penis,” Riley said.
“I read the book, too,” said Riley. “Two Women. Those fucking fascists. But Alberto Moravia! That fucker can write.”
“Rosetta,” I said. “Tragic.”
“Cesaria,” Riley said. “It’s the mother’s story. A mother’s love. I love her eyes. Sometimes I stare at this for hours.” He fondled his arm.
I tried to nod my head. It seemed stuck to my shoulders.
“Sometimes I lick her,” Riley said. His tongue wet his lips. “You wanna see?”
This was alarming. Riley laughed at the expression on my face, and I laughed along, relieved. He asked if I needed a light. I retrieved the Marlboro and Riley lit me up. “I’m just fucking with ya, kid. Why don’t you text the wife. She’ll want to know what you’ve done to her car.”
“You knew it was hers?”
“Police work, son.”
I texted. Nothing. I texted three more times. We waited.
“Can I get up and wash my hands?” I asked. “Is there a bathroom?”
“Nope,” Riley said. He registered the disappointment in my eyes. “You could pee against the crow tree. It’s what I usually do.”
I sat in my chair looking at the penis.
Riley followed my eyes to the ball hair. He wasn’t a bad cop. He handed me his pen knife. “Scratch it out,” he said.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Sure I’m sure. What’s one less penis?”
I took the pen knife and carved some lines coming off the shaft so that it resembled the trunk of a tree, then made the rest into veined maple leaves. We sat admiring my work. Riley handed me a Sharpie, and I filled in the knife scars, adding a moon above the tree. Riley took the Sharpie and set the moon in shadowed clouds. I swept the wood shavings onto the floor.
“You want to watch it?”
“What?” I said, sneaking a look at my phone.
“Duh,” Riley said. “You’re kinda slow for grad school are you?”
He popped a tape into a VHS player below what looked like a 20 inch flat screen. He selected rewind with a crooked thumb and the machine whirred to life. When it was done rewinding, a minute later, it clicked off. Riley punched play.
Seagulls like scraps of paper blew over the Italian buildings on screen. The lush strings on the soundtrack filled the filthy room with music and then the opening images of the bombs, the women pulling the shades, the train, and the people holding out their arms through the open windows. Sophia Loren and a very young Eleonora Brown as Rosetta. Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michele Di Libero, and Andrea Checci as the fascist.
Riley sat erect in his chair, staring at the screen. The phone rang. It was a black rotary model from the 1950s. He picked up and set down the handset in one smooth motion. Reaching down to the bottom drawer of his desk, he produced two shot glasses and a bottle of Wild Turkey. He bought us both a drink.
“Look at her,” Riley said, staring at the women in the movie. Sophia Loren combined intelligence and passion with her usual whirling indifference. We watched the tiny screen, rapt.
“I had forgotten how tall Sophia Loren is,” I said. She towered over Rosetta as the two women walked through the open fields.
“Five nine,” Riley said. He bought us another drink.
I decided to come out with it. It had been bugging me since it first came up, and I needed to know. I’d been waiting for the right time.
“So, Riley,” I said. “How come you didn’t pick up on my reference to Hitchcock and the crows. Bodega Bay? The Birds, man. Hello? Tippi Hedren?”
The two halves of his face united in a scowl. “Hitchcock’s overrated.”
In this I had to agree.
“But Tippi Hedren? I mean, c’mon man!”
Riley looked disgusted. “She’s great,” he finally said. “But The Birds is not her finest work. Not her fault. Hitchcock was a fascist control freak, never gave her a minute’s peace, the dickwad.”
My phone pinged. It was probably Rina. I powered off. I was hungry.
Riley opened the window behind his desk and turned off the AC. I felt the night breeze graze my cheek. He bought us another drink. I held my glass out to him and sighed with contentment. We downed our shots, and Riley bought us another. I looked out the open window. There was a nail paring of a moon, rising. The sky was wine colored and streaked with yellow and blue. A blue plume of light from the streetlamp curled in under the window shade and stretched across the desk. Somewhere out there Rina was waiting. She would not be happy to hear what I’d done to her car.
The movie played on into the night. Sophia Loren threw rocks at the fascists, her eyes angry and wide as the black ocean laid flat on its back. Riley didn’t move a muscle. When the movie ended, he re-wound it, and played it again. I lit another cigarette and reached for the chicken bucket. We slumped deep in our chairs.
Image: photo by Mátyás Kozma on Unsplash , licensed under CC 2.0.