May 2005

A wing and a prayer

By David Feela

A small, red Ford Fiesta would not be considered a luxury car, but the trip to Arizona felt luxurious. We had – or rather, the couple that took this trip had – an entire week. I’m not going to identify that couple, because the police might take more than a reader’s interest in the story I’m about to relate. But it happened almost exactly the way I remember it, or rather, the way I remember it being told.

Queen Valley is located on the edge of the greater Phoenix sprawl, and a few retired folk summering in the Four Corners area actually own wintering property near Phoenix. The car in question did not belong to the drivers.

You see, the young and generous couple I referred to had offered to pick up a few things from the older couple’s hibernating home while on the road and heading in that general direction. So, the car belonged to the older couple, who had it gassed up before loaning it to the younger ones – a petroleum- based thank you for the kind offer. Some kindnesses can never be repaid, as you will see, and should therefore never be offered.

Near the Four Corners Monument the more curious of the two young people peeked into the glove compartment. “You never know,” she said as she pushed the button, “what might be required in an emergency.” Certainly, a medium-caliber handgun was not the kind of emergency tool this passenger had in mind. In fact, the discovery of the handgun felt like an emergency in itself.

“Don’t touch it!” the driver exclaimed. And she didn’t, so she closed the tiny glove-compartment door and they pretended what they’d seen wasn’t there, but already it was holstered in their imaginations, and loaded. I can’t imagine why an older couple would have left a handgun in a car they loaned out to other people. Or at least that’s what the driver probably thought. Maybe retired military men don’t concern themselves with how things appear in a demilitarized world.

The trip would have been uneventful after finding the handgun except that it wasn’t. Flat on the road, halfway across the Checkerboard reservation, a giant bird of prey had come to its end, a traffic fatality with feathers. They stopped. “Wow,” he remarked. You see, he was still driving, and drivers are allowed to stop beside anything that elicits a capital “Wow.” He identified the bird as an eagle, a dead one. It had been crushed by more than one vehicle.

While dragging its enormous carcass to the side of the road, an unfortunate idea occurred to the driver: Tucson LoneEagle would appreciate the gift of some feathers, wouldn’t he? And so, with the grace of a trash collector, the driver separated the best wing from the carcass and slipped it under the lid of what served as a trunk in a vehicle that size, covered it with a tarp, and continued down the road.

I know this for a fact, that they were feeling guilty about breaking several laws: one against the transport of dead eagle parts, and the other about possessing weapons that could not be accounted for by registration or permit. One of them thought ( I can’t remember which), At least we aren’t smuggling drugs. But drugs would have been small stuff compared to the motivation for two police cars converging on the tiny red Fiesta, with sirens and lights. Oh shit! one of them thought. I’m pretty sure this time it was the driver, not the passenger who unconsciously pressed her knees against the glove-compartment door.

Two Arizona State patrolmen, guns drawn, asked them to get out of the vehicle. After identification had been provided, the patrolman that stood guarding the suspects visibly relaxed; his handgun pointed toward the pavement. When his partner hastily signaled from the patrol car, the gun went back into its holster.

He apologized for the excitement and informed the couple that a car identical to the one they were driving had been involved in an armed bank holdup. The criminals were supposedly in flight at this moment. The officer’s use of the words “in flight” had not been intended to make anyone nervous, but the young driver visibly flinched as the words hovered in the air.

One of the police radios crackled to life and the patrolman rushed back to his own car. In the time it takes for thunder to boom after a lightning strike, the two patrol cars sped off in opposite directions.

I don’t know if relief can be said to fall like rain on a desert, but the sky around the couple left standing beside their borrowed car literally went soft. Maybe it was the driver’s knees, I’m not sure. Like I said, I only heard the story, third-hand really, and the details will always be suspect.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.