Tad’s hand in hers, Dee stood before the monolithic one-story building, the exterior of which was constructed of butter-colored corrugated steel and big red marquee letters that shouted, “Arizona State Fair Exhibit Building.” The fairgrounds that spread out behind her were abuzz with activity, readying for the gates to open to the thousands of fairgoers planning a fun Sunday of rides, games, exhibits, farm animals, and fried, fattening food. Excitement filled the air as amusement rides began to light up and whir into action, including the giant Ferris wheel, which dominated the midway. The food booths, too, were gearing up: Smells of cotton candy, caramel apples, and hot, buttered popcorn wafted into Dee and Tad’s nostrils, causing both their stomachs to growl with complaint.
Entering into the maw of the 50,000-square-foot exhibit building, Dee wondered how in the world she’d find the Phoenix Police Community Relations booth among the many rows of vendor booths that filled the vast, block-long space. The only instruction she’d been given was ‘booth 311’. After wandering amidst the bustling chaos for several minutes, she glimpsed at the far end of row ‘E’ a white banner bearing the familiar Phoenix Police emblem—a golden phoenix spreading its wings against a chevron of royal blue.
“There we are!” she told Tad.
“Finally,” he said, in a voice that intoned, “I’d rather be anywhere else but here.”
The gates to the fairgrounds had no doubt opened as a mass of jabbering people was now flooding into the exhibit building. Dee made a rush for booth 311, pulling a limp-bodied Tad behind her.
The booth was empty; Dee was apparently the first to arrive. An eight-foot table draped in a blue and gold cloth sat at the front of the booth, stocked with various community program pamphlets, ‘Officer Friendly’ coloring books, packs of crayons, badge decals, and police academy application forms. At the rear of the booth was the front half of a cardboard-constructed police car, painted black and white, which bore two cartoonish eyes where the headlights should be, and a license plate that read, “Phil”. The backside of the car pressed up against the booth’s backdrop: heavy blue curtains that hung from an overhead rod from which also hung the white banner bearing the official emblem.
Fairgoers were now advancing down the rows, drawing closer and closer to the police booth, and Dee began to panic. What was she to say? How was she to act? Had she dressed appropriately? It was an unusually hot morning, even for Phoenix, so she had dressed for the heat: A pair of crisp, white, high-waisted shorts that showcased her slender legs and tiny waistline, and a matching white halter top that revealed her delicate shoulders. She and Tad had spent the day before lounging at the apartment’s pool and Dee was eager to show off her newly acquired tan. She now rued the decision, wishing she had dressed more conservatively, as she was about to become, within the next minute or two, the official spokesperson for the entire Phoenix Police Department. She nervously looked to Tad, who was equally clueless, and back to the approaching fairgoers. She laughed, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.”
“Just stand there and look pretty, honey.”
A startled Dee looked back to Tad who was staring at the car. It wasn’t Tad’s voice that uttered those words, but the smooth tenor voice of an adult male. Dee followed Tad’s gaze as she, too, now looked at the car. “Hello?” she asked.
“Has anyone ever told you, you have beautiful feet?” asked the tenor voice, coming through a small speaker mounted on the grill of the car, which then winked at her with an articulating eyelid.
Tad found this enormously funny, while Dee found it worthy of a blush and a glance down at her petite feet, red-painted toenails, and the strappy white sandals she now regretted wearing.
There was no time to react or respond to “Phil’s” unusual compliment, as the fairgoers had arrived in throngs, and it was all Dee and Tad could do to smile and nod at them while “Phil the Talking Police Car” flirted, charmed and informed fairgoers young and old about the merits of Phoenix’s finest, encouraging them to help themselves to the pamphlets and other free offerings on the tabletop. Time passed quickly. Dee busied Tad with a box of crayons and an “Officer Friendly” coloring book, and busied herself, at Phil’s direction, with restocking the tabletop inventory, when needed, from the boxes hidden underneath the table. After a couple of hours, the activity at the booth dwindled, and Phil turned his attention once again to Dee.
“So, you’re one of the new Crime Stop operators?”
“Yes,” answered Dee.
“How the hell have I not seen you around HQ before?”
Tad abruptly stopped coloring. “Mommy, he said ‘hell’.”
“Oh, sorry, kid. Maybe this bad little car needs a spanking, heh-heh-heh,” said Phil, winking his cartoon eye.
Dee thought to scold the naughty car but any intention to do so was interrupted by the arrival of what looked like a barely pubescent teenager in a police uniform.
“Heyyy!” said Phil, emulating ‘The Fonz’ from the television show, Happy Days. “My relief’s finally here. It’s about time, Herbie.”
“Sorry,” replied Herbie. “I had to wait for my mom to drive me here.”
“Your mom?” asked Dee. “How old are you?”
“Aren’t you a little young to be a police officer?”
“He’s not an officer; he’s a Police Explorer,” said Phil…yet not Phil; this tenor lacked the tinny quality of a voice speaking through a microphone; it was smoother and richer than Phil’s voice…and deliciously warmer. Dee turned as the voice of Phil stepped out from behind the curtain. Her heart skipped a beat, then another, and another…until it was fluttering so hard, she feared he might hear it.
“Hi,” was all he said, but for Dee, that was all it took.
He was, in Dee’s eyes, perfection. A perfect tawny face: symmetrical, shaven, and smooth as satin. A cropped cap of ebony hair, cut perfectly. Even his uniform screamed perfection—pressed and creased and snug in all the right places, hinting at the perfect body beneath.
“Oh, hi,” she finally managed to reply, feeling at once bashful and girlishly self-conscious.
Then he smiled. It was the kind of smile that just oozed sexiness and could no doubt charm the knickers off a Mother Superior.
“Police Explorers like Herbie are part of a youth program that mentors kids 14-21 who want to become officers. It’s run by the CRB, the Community Relations Bureau. We’re up on the second floor. I can’t believe I’ve never seen you in the building before.”
“Well, they keep us pretty busy down in the basement. You know, chained and whipped,” said Dee, joking, as she was apt to do, and do badly, when nervous, but nonetheless eliciting a sexy laugh from the beautiful man she couldn’t take her eyes off of. Oh, god, she thought, even his laugh is perfect.
“I’m Eli Colton. And you are?”
“Oh, uh, Dee…DeeDee…or Deirdre…or whatever you’d like to call me,” she babbled.
Eli laughed again. “Funny girl.”
“I’ll answer to that, too,” said Dee, wishing she could just shut herself up to stop the idiocy from spilling out of her mouth. “Oh,” she said, suddenly remembering she had a son. “This is my son, Tad.”
“Hi, there,” Eli said to Tad.
“Hey,” said Tad, then to his mother, “Can we go eat?”
“That is an excellent idea!” said Eli, slapping his hands together. “Herbie, can you hold down the fort for the next hour? You remember how to work Phil’s controls, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir!” said Herbie, eager to take command.
Eli took Dee by the elbow. “There’s a food booth out on the midway that has the best Indian fry bread and frijoles.”
“I don’t know what either of those is, but I’ll take your word for it,” Dee replied, taking Tad by the hand. “Just lead the way.”
The threesome was squeezed together on a small bench in the crowded midway, juggling drinks and plates on their laps as they finished up their food amidst the clamor of passersby and the screams of thrill-ride passengers. Across the midway, Hopi dancers in vibrant traditional costumes gyrated to the beat of ceremonial drums on an elevated stage, while over a loudspeaker system Crystal Gayle crooned, “Don’t it make my brown eyes blue.”
Eli had talked non-stop since leaving the booth, telling an enrapt Dee about growing up in Los Angeles as the only child of parents who worked in the film and television industry. His mother, an actress, had numerous small walk-on parts on TV shows like Perry Mason, Ben Casey, and The Fugitive. “Roles for black women in the sixties were few and far between,” he explained, “but in ’69, she finally got a break with a recurring role in the Emmy-winning show about a racially-mixed high school in L.A., a show called Room 222, with Lloyd Haynes and Denise Nichols.” His father, he said, made decent money working as a set construction foreman on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank—enough money to pay Eli’s way through UCLA where he graduated cum laude with a degree in communications. He paused to take a breath, then motioned to Dee’s empty plate. “Did you like it?”
It took a second for Dee to break from her state of fascination before answering. “Delicious,” she replied. Tad, still chewing, nodded vigorously in agreement.
“What do you say we try some of the rides?” asked Eli.
Tad swallowed his mouthful of fry bread and pointed at a giant rotating, welded-steel monster that looked like a chainsaw with twelve attached cages that flipped its shrieking riders in all sorts of directions; the word Zipper was lit up in neon cursive on its sparse, spinning frame.
Eli and Dee watched, with morbid fascination, as the Zipper’s victims disembarked the ride, stumbling from dizziness, some stopping after a few steps to retch and vomit.
“Two girls from Tempe died on that thing last year,” said Eli.
“Maybe something a little tamer,” said Dee.
“The views of the valley from the top of the Ferris wheel are spectacular,” suggested Eli.
Dee looked out beyond the midway, to the periphery where the giant Ferris wheel rose from the grounds like a circular skyscraper over ten stories high. Wrapping a protective arm around Tad, she said, “Perhaps something a little closer to the ground.”
“I’ve got just the thing,” said Eli. He collected the empty cups and paper plates and tossed them into a trash bin. “Come with me…”
As they wove their way through the hordes, bumping and bouncing off people, some armed with large colored poofs of spun sugar, others with big stuffed animals, Dee noticed the occasional looks of surprise from some passersby as they eyed Eli, with two or three calling out his name in recognition. With each “Look, it’s Officer Eli!” Eli would smile and give them a little wave but continued on his way without stopping to return the greetings. Passing through the long row of game booths, one booth attendant yelled out to Eli, “Toss a dime and win your little lady a Teddy Bear!” Eli kept on walking, telling Dee, “That game’s rigged. They wax the plates, making it impossible for the dimes to stick.” Further down the row, a pot-bellied, cigar-chomping attendant bellowed out, “Officer Eli! How ‘bout a free round?”
This time, Eli stopped. “Did I hear the word ‘free’?”
“You sure as shootin’ did!” said the grinning attendant, handing Eli an air rifle. “Take out ten targets and you can have your pick of any prize you want.”
Eli looked at Dee and smiled. “Think about which one you want,” he said, then sighted in, and, one by one, began shooting the smiling tin ducks as they glided by. With each felled duckling, passersby took notice and began crowding around them, clapping and hooting. As the crowd of onlookers grew, comments broke out among them: Who’s that? Looks like Officer Eli. Isn’t he the guy on TV?
The tenth little duck went down without a fight. A perfect round for Officer Eli.
Yep, thought Dee, perfect.
The crowd around them slowly dissipated. Dee left the prize choice up to Tad who, after giving it much thought, settled on a pink stuffed pig in a lacy black cocktail dress.
“Odd choice for a little boy,” mused Eli.
From the shooting gallery, the three pushed onward until Eli found what he was looking for. Before them stood a carousel of grand design. Glittering, gilded, and glorious, with mounts to suit every equine desire: wild mustangs, armored steeds, Arabian prancers, winged Pegasus-like creatures, even unicorns. The organ music played to the imagination, inviting one and all, young and old, to climb aboard. Tad picked a unicorn, riding in tandem with Dee, while Eli hopped aboard the black, armored steed next to it. Throughout the ride, Eli chattered on and on, trying to shout above the organ music. Dee caught, at most, every third or fourth word…piecing together an accounting of his time at UCLA and how he’d followed his college girlfriend to Phoenix after they both had graduated. When the ride ended, Eli looked at his watch.
“Oh, shit! We’ve been gone over an hour. I need to get back to Herbie!”
On the brisk walk back to the exhibit hall, Eli continued on about why he decided to stay in Phoenix, even after his college sweetheart, pressured by her parents, ended their romance:
“Her parents weren’t exactly thrilled with my complexion,” he said, laughing. “But I stayed on anyway because I had aspirations of working in the media and thought I’d have a better chance in Phoenix than in L.A. of breaking into broadcasting—less competition and all that. Turns out, none of the TV stations here, not even the small independents, would hire me. I guess they weren’t thrilled with my complexion either—none of them were willing to risk breaking the racial barrier, not even with an amazingly talented and charming black Adonis like myself.” He paused to laugh at himself and smiled that irresistible smile of his; it was impossible for Dee to keep from laughing right along with him, melting from his charms as she did.
“So, anyway, when I was just about to give up and hightail it back to L.A., I saw a recruiting ad for the Phoenix Police Department targeting minorities. I thought, why not, what’ve I got to lose? So I signed up. Got hired. Did my requisite three years in the field as a patrol officer and, because of my degree, was fast-tracked into the Community Relations Bureau. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was ‘the face’ of the Phoenix Police, doing PSAs and other promotional spots on all the local TV stations. Ironic, isn’t it?” He and Dee shared a chuckle over the twisted irony of fate before he continued on:
“And I’m now the official voice of Phil the Talking Car,” Eli proudly announced. “The one at the booth’s just a mock-up. The actual Phil will be a real squad car, with a computerized system to activate the red lights, radio, and sirens, and a tape deck with a recording of my voice that will talk to school kids about general safety rules and our ‘Stranger Danger’ program.”
Eli continued talking about all the exciting aspects of his role as a Community Relations officer, and how much he loved his job, as the three made their way back to the exhibit building. Dee nodded and smiled throughout, showing a keen interest and hanging on every word he said, while a bored Tad sighed repeatedly as he hugged his prized piggy.
Entering into the exhibit building, Eli unexpectedly stopped and turned to Dee. “Before we get back to the booth, I wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. I was wondering…” He hesitated, as if afraid to continue.
“Yes?” asked Dee, her face lit with expectation.
Tad just stared at Eli.
“Well…would it be okay…is it alright…if I called you sometime?”
Dee fought the urge to jump up and down while gleefully screaming Yes! Yes! Yes!
“I guess so,” she said casually. “Sure, why not?”
Relief and delight washed over Eli. “Well, okay!” As they started walking again, Dee noted a buoyancy in Eli’s step; he seemed to be floating. She, too, felt to be walking on air and it was all she could do to stifle the giddiness percolating inside her.
Tad trudged on, working hard to keep up with the two adults. When they finally arrived back at the booth, Herbie rushed out from behind the curtain. “Where have you guys been? I was supposed to leave a half-hour ago!”
Eli apologized profusely for their tardiness—so sincere and eloquent were his expressions of regret that Herbie soon found himself the one to be apologizing.
“I’m so sorry I overreacted…”
“No worries,” assuaged Eli. “Was everything okay while we were out?”
“Everything went great. It was pretty slow, to be honest,” said Herbie. “Is it okay if I go now?”
“Yeah, sure, go on, and thanks for your help today.”
Herbie smiled at Dee and Tad, “It was nice meeting you,” then sprinted away.
“Nice kid, which is saying a lot since I’m not a big fan of kids,” said Eli, who shot a quick look to Tad. “Present company excluded, of course!”
Tad furrowed his brow and shot a look right back at him.
Eager to change the subject, Eli handed Dee a pamphlet and a crayon. “Can you write your phone number on this for me?” he asked, with some impatience. “Listen, I’ve got to run to the men’s room. Can you do me a favor and take over as Phil while I’m gone?”
“Oh, I don’t know how to work…”
“You’ll be okay. The controls are all labeled. Just remember to press down the mic button when you speak.”
And then, he was gone.
Dee grabbed a coloring book and crayons. “Come on, Tad,” she said, parting the curtains for him.
While Tad colored in his book on the floor next to her, Dee settled into the chair and small table behind the curtain. The controls before her were indeed labeled and, she thought, pretty self-explanatory. Two levers, labeled ‘right eye’ and ‘left eye’, jutted out from wired control boxes, while a small video display monitored the activity in the booth—none at the moment, much to Dee’s relief. A microphone with a long coiled cord that connected to the speaker on Phil’s grill rested on the table.
It wasn’t long before a fairgoer wandered into the booth: A stunning beauty with long blonde hair, an hourglass figure wrapped tightly in a little red chemise, complemented by a pair of wicked spike heels. A sick but fleeting knot formed in Dee’s stomach as she thought about the hot young blonde her AWOL husband, Newt, had run off with. She shrugged it off and focused her attention instead on the video display and prepared in her head what to say into the mic. She picked it up and depressed the button, but the blonde, who was now suggestively stroking Phil’s chassis, spoke out first.
“How’s my little hot rod?”
Dee was speechless, but duty called, so she mustered all the chutzpah she had. She pressed the mic button again and, in a comically gruff voice, replied:
“Er, fine. How are you?”
The blonde jerked her hand from Phil’s hood. “Oh! I’m sorry. Where’s Eli?” she asked, visibly flustered.
Dee gruffly responded: “He’s not here right now. Can I take a message?”
The blonde took a step back from the car. “Just tell him I stopped by and that I’ll call him tonight when he gets home.”
Stunned and completely blindsided, Dee sputtered, forgetting to use her ‘Phil’ voice: “And, uh, who should I, who…”. Forcing herself back into character, she lowered her voice and growled, “Who should I tell him stopped by?”
“Bambi,” said the blonde. “His girlfriend.”