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The Old Man and the Sebring

A black family teaches a white cop about patience, love, and joy

By R. Justin FreemanPublished 3 months ago 12 min read
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“Two fifteen.”

Now see, that’s how you know a veteran dispatcher from a neophyte. The newbies always ask. “Two fifteen?” As though there is room for question here. As though I might not answer. As though I could decline my charge.

The established dispatchers know better. Their droll voices bear mere statements of fact.

We’re both signatories to the covenant. The forms must be obeyed.

I respond in kind to continue the ritual. “Two fifteen.”

“Two fifteen, shoplifting.” My cruiser’s cabin pulses a painfully familiar hue of green as the call fills my computer screen. “Female stole clothing, cooperative. Loss prevention will meet you on scene.”

“Clear, en route.” Ah, the Beat Fifteen Special. Working over ten a month, I’ve got the formula down pat. I flick my turn signal on and divert to the call.

The shades of orange are smoky on the horizon behind me as I go. I start north, see the snarl of traffic, call an audible and hit the highway. Even well past rush hour, the city continues its daily exsanguination, blood flowing red and amber in the artery ahead.

And amber.

And amber.

And amber.

I shake myself out of autopilot and follow the light to its source: A white Chrysler Sebring, stopped in traffic in the middle of three lanes.

My brow furrows. This could be any number of things.

“Two fifteen, stack my current and show me out with a vehicle at my location, unknown occupied.” I start my incantation to whatever law enforcement goddess perches upon the Pantheon: Please don’t be drunk, please don’t be drunk…

“Clear two fifteen, show you out.”

“Two twelve, send his prior to me and code four.”

“Clear two twelve, two fifteen copy?” Oh, do I ever. Bless you, Benjamin — you’re a saint among sinners this night. “Clear, thanks.”

Writing Ben a mental IOU, I flick a switch and fight the advancing night to my rear with a barrage of red and blue light. Carefully stepping out and onto pavement tread only in true necessity, I see the pulsing wave of brake lights radiating outward.

Sigh. I care not about such a trivial vice right now. My sole aim right now is staying off their hoods.

My anxiety ticks up as I get farther from the safety of my cruiser. It wouldn’t be so bad if everyone was playing nice, but the occasional opportunist is taking advantage of the weakness of societal norms and smoking everyone by going to my left, passing the prudent in their push to get back to their miserable life nineteen seconds faster.

I suppress a fantasy involving spike strips.

I hug the Sebring’s driver’s side and am a bit surprised to find the window already open to the roar of the road. Inside sits a black male, alone, looking forward, hands folded ever so neatly in the lap of his bib overalls. Drawn hands, weathered by time. I meet his gaze, finding gentle eyes, kind but tired. Expectant.

This man is elderly.

“What seems to be the problem, sir?” I ask through the window. Another opportunist chills the shorn scalp on my skull in passing, and I fight to keep the irritation out of my expression.

The man twists awkwardly in response, cupping and pushing his ear — very clearly his self-designated “good one” — as though he intends to shove it out the window. “Come again?” he says above the automotive ambiance.

Oh, dear. This wicket is getting sticky. I turn the verbosity down to two and my volume up to twelve.

“What’s wrong?”

“I think I ran out of gas!” I glance to his instrument panel, still lit up with the key on, its fuel needle insistently pointing at empty even in death.

“I think you’re right.” I straighten from my stoop and start assessing the situation. Job one is keeping both of us safe. If he were in the right lane, a few traffic cones would suffice — but those ten feet to the left are making a big difference. Although, that slope…

“What’s your name, sir?”

“Name’s Charles!”

“Charles, can you stay right there for me? I’ll be right back.”

Seeing him nod, I retreat to my cruiser. Catching a gap in traffic, I straddle the lane divider and block the right lane as well. I’m keenly aware of what a tow truck’s response time is going to look like, so it’s time to take matters into my own hands.

I go back to the Sebring. “Okay, Charles,” I say, leaning into the window so he can hear. “We need to get you off the road. I want you to put your car in neutral, and I’m going to push you down onto the shoulder, okay?”

Charles beams at this, seemingly thrilled that there is now A Plan. He turns to comply, hand reaching for the steering column. The windshield wipers fling themselves into motion. “Charles, you — ”

My protest is met with a shower of wiper fluid. “Charles! Those are the wipers! The gearshift is on the floor!”

Having to look for it, Charles finally manages to get the car into neutral. After squeegeeing the worst of the wiper fluid off my face, I check to make sure nobody is stupid enough to take the shoulder to get around us. Then I have Charles cut his wheel and I give the Sebring enough heave-ho to put it in motion.

The spiking complexity of the situation begins to dawn on me as I get him stopped. I excuse myself again to pull the cruiser behind and off the road. Then I ask Charles back to its relative safety.

Charles is a very odd fit in my normally vacant passenger seat.

“Okay Charles…first off, my name is Justin, since we didn’t have time for proper introductions.”

“Pleased to know you.” It strikes me how insistent Charles is to hew to formal convention in our conversation. It’s a welcome relief after getting used to being called “dude” and “bro bro” all night — and that’s from the people who liked me.

“Same to you, but I wish it was in better circumstances. So let’s figure out how to get you on your way. Do you have family or friends in town we might call?”

“Yes, but I can’t think of their phone number.”

“Okay. Well, do you live in the city?”

“I’ve lived in the city my whole life!” he retorts, seemingly indignant I would suggest otherwise.

“Okay, Charles, that’s good. Can you tell me what your address is?” Considering for a moment or two, Charles shakes his head slightly. “I can’t think of it right off.”

Hmmm. Solving for X is getting difficult with so many variables. “Well, if I were to drive you home, could you give me directions on how to get there?”

“Oh, sure! Sure!”

Excellent. Now we’re cooking with gas. “Two fifteen.”

“Two fifteen.”

“Log this as an Assist a Person, and I’ll be providing courtesy transport to one male; will advise address on arrival, beginning mileage zero.”

“Clear two fifteen, show you en route.”

“Okay Charles, if you’ll just put your seat belt on there, I’ll start us down the road and you just tell me what turns to take, okay?”

Charles seems pleased with this. We head eastbound and down, my cruiser cabin the stuff of the campiest buddy cop movie you could possibly pitch to a producer. He has me take a right off the highway. And then a subsequent right at the light. And then a right at the next light.

The fourth right confirms the concern conceived by the third.

“Charles, we’re headed into a commercial district…is it possible you’ve forgotten where you live?”

My heart capsizes and sinks to the bottom of my chest watching his face, as he tries to make sense of what lies through the windshield we share. The road behind him unknown. The road ahead, foreign. I pull into a business parking lot, long since abandoned for the day, metallic orange light puddling in pools on the pavement.

I put the cruiser in park and take a step back. Charles sits quietly, patiently, never questioning my methods or motives. ‘Elderly male, lucid enough to safely drive his car out of gas, but otherwise confused. No contact information. Now we’re sitting in a parking lot. How to…

…wait! How stupid am I?’

“Charles, do you have your driver’s license?”

“Why sure!” He leans over, tugging a wallet out of his overalls and handing it to me. I feel a little odd digging through, but I don’t trust his ability to find his ID at this point, and consider his handing it to me wholesale as tacit permission. Finding the prize wedged between two tattered business cards, I pull it out and look to see where we’re headed.

Non-driver’s identification. Tsk tsk, Charles. I reckon I’ll let it slide tonight.

Wow, 88 years old. You actually look pretty good for 88.

“Bellafontaine?” I say out loud, half to myself. That street doesn’t sound familiar.

I move my thumb.

KANSAS CITY, MO 64130

Kansas City??

“Charles! You live in Kansas City?”

“Well, yeah!”

“Wha — what are you doing here?”

“Where’s that?”

“Charles, you’re two hundred miles from home!”

His eyes widen as he ever so slightly recoils away from me. “You get outta here!”

My shoulders slump despite myself. How in the blue hell did he manage this? This man thinks he’s still in Kansas City. At length, I key up my mic.

“Two fifteen.”

“Two fifteen.”

“Ending mileage two, but I’m out at the title company on Bradford, and this is going to be a…confused elder situation. I’ll call in.”

“Clear two fifteen.” Almost instantly, my computer pings with a message from my sergeant:

?

Sarge’s trademark efficiency in action. I swivel the laptop toward me. “You’re a long way from home, Charles. I’m going to have to work on how to contact your family, okay?”

“Okay.” Past the initial shock of realizing he isn’t orbiting Kansas City, he seems content to wait patiently while I do my work.

I set my fingers to flurrying across the keyboard:

Car out of gas occ x 1, 88 yo male. Thinks he’s still in KC.

Oof. Need soc svc inv?

Sby there. Having disp look up fam, will adv.

Charles doesn’t need a Social Services case worker — he just needs his family, which I’m certain is collectively beside itself. At least, I hope.

A couple of names from Charles and a call to dispatch yields a listed phone number for Charles’ daughter Sheila. Praying it’s accurate and in service, I dial the number on my cell.

“Hello?” The tone is a strange mix of hope and panic.

I simultaneously pray a prayer of gratitude to the goddess and introduce myself. “I’m here with Charles — is he your father?”

“Oh my God yes! We were about to report him missing! Is he okay??” Her volume drops as she pulls away from the mic: “They found Daddy!” There’s a muffled outburst in the room she’s in; I let it pass before I respond.

“He’s a bit confused, ma’am…he thinks he’s still there in Kansas City. Otherwise he seems to be uninjured and okay. I happened on him in a Sebring, which he’d run out of gas. Are you or someone else able to pick him up tonight? I know it’s getting late.”

“Yes, of course. Is that a suburb? I’ve never heard of it. How do I get there?”

“Oh, ma’am, no. We’re about two hundred miles away from you here.”

“…what?? He doesn’t drive and he’s never left the city in his life!! Oh my God oh my God…”

There’s a pause on the line; neither of us seem to know how to advance the conversation. Finally Sheila says, “Okay, okay, I’m going to need to make some calls. Is he there? May I speak to him?”

“Of course.” I hand the phone to Charles, hearing sounds of concern against his ear before he gives Sheila his own reassurances and says, “This officer is taking real good care of me.”

My great-grandfathers are long since passed, but Charles saying this warms me as much as it would have from any of them.

An SUV barrels into the parking lot at Headquarters, markedly ahead of any legal schedule.

I’m rather disinclined to bring it up.

Out piles the family. And family. And family. There are hugs and tears. It’s plain there’s a lot of love for Charles. He’s showered with affection and playful chiding and tenderness that I know must be a reflection of what he’s given all of them over time. This man has obviously invested in his family. And he’ll never know the fullness of that investment’s return. It will be enjoyed by his children, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren.

Charles takes my hand and warmly shakes it as I offer it, his free hand coming up to help the way you do when you really mean it. His eyes are still kind, despite the exhaustion I know must be plaguing his body by this point. I said, “I’m sorry it came with a long day for you, but I’m glad I got to know you, Charles.”

“You, too. Thank you.”

I shake hands with Sheila and her husband. It’s a scene none of us imagined when we started our days — the white farm boy turned cop shaking hands at midnight with a black family from deep in the Kansas City metro. It’s a scene I’d want plenty of people privy to — to see that it doesn’t have to be endless animus between we human beings. To see that the love of family can have an impact even on those outside it. But only the parking lot lights are there to witness our moment of racial harmony.

For their part, they quietly buzz with approval.

Everyone starts to pile back into the SUV. Then they stop and look at one another. Having started to turn to leave, I wonder at the pause and realize:

They were so overjoyed to go get Charles, they didn’t leave any room for him.

And there in that moment of time I learn a lesson about love and joy. True love ignites joy so effervescent, so possessed of vitality, that it overcomes logic and rational thought. Love doesn’t calculate — it celebrates. Love doesn’t ponder — it permeates.

I exchange a glance with Sheila’s husband, embarrassment written on his face. I fail to suppress a smile and shake my head to reject his guilt.

“No worries. Hop in, I’ll take you down to the car.” I reach for my mic:

“Two fifteen.”

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About the Creator

R. Justin Freeman

Rambler slowing so my kids can start rambling. Done everything from cattle ranching to law enforcement, clergy work to retail, writing to living in Canada's far north. I try to let all of it inform my writing, but current focus is SaHDs.

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  • Stephanie Brown3 months ago

    Description was well used in this story. Felt like I was in the cruiser. Powerful messaging with respect to dementia-took me back to volunteering on a dementia floor in a seniors home many years ago. A well written wholesome story!

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