“Mornin,” the man from the sheriff’s department says, looking the three of us over. That he omits “good” seems like a folksy abbreviation, but also accurate.
“Morning,” he repeats. Now it sounds like he’s genuinely trying to help us know what part of the day it is.
“Now you folks see that sign over there?” he asks.
We look around. In daylight, we see the local flora for the first time. Bushes from a genus that’d hurt to fall in. The ground is clay or something. It looks, in the amazing way the country often can, to be another country. And there at the end of an extended finger appears, as if he’d conjured it with a spell, a sign that reads, “No Camping Within ½ Mile Of Road.”
The car headlights, as they’d circled the parking lot in the dark, had missed it. We turn back to the deputy, three postures, three facial expressions all expressing the same thing: Yes, now we see that sign over there.
We use our hands to make visors against the sun. We stay silent and yawn at the sheriff’s deputy. It becomes clear, after a few seconds, that all pauses seem like standoffs in the desert.
Mike is first to formulate a coherent defense: that we would have walked in a little farther if we’d seen the sign.
“How would we have seen it at night?” Mike asks.
Go Mike! I yell, silently, my face still.
Dan clears his throat to make a point. We all look at Dan.
Dan was just clearing his throat.
What we want to say is: “Tell you what. We slept in the wrong place. Your rules don’t make sense and I think your sun might be too close to the earth—how’s about we call it even and find a place that serves eggs. I don’t think it’s a stretch, Sir, to think you’re the kind of guy who likes his eggs.”
“Oh right,” the deputy says to Mike’s comment, mulling it over. This obvious logic seemed to make a little sense to him. He admits that it’d be tough, sure, to see that sign in the dark. The conversation gets friendlier. Somewhere in his neck muscles I think I see a nod. He says we’d probably made an honest mistake, and does some other minor ’sposin. But, anyway, just to be sure, he gives us each a $100 ticket.
The deputy tears off slips of paper and hands one carbon copy to each of us.
“I’m really sorry ’bout this,” the deputy says as he does something he has complete control over.
“A hundred dollars?” we say, a protest but also just to marvel objectively at the amount.
We don’t know yet that vagrancy is its own opposite, and means you stayed somewhere too long. A term for someone who moves from place to place given to someone when they don’t move fast enough. The world, in our experience, has been up till now more or less fine with us being wherever.
The officer heads to his car, drops the chassis an inch and after a few seconds shuts the door, a smooth, aligned crunching of a new car door when all the little mechanisms and catches still line up perfectly. It isn’t hard to see moral authority in his vehicle’s cleanliness. It looks like a new piece of electronics with the plastic protector just peeled off.