One Night at Oceanview (feature)
There are two drunk guys fighting in the trailer across from me, I said to the answering machine. Please do something.
I used to like staying at the Oceanview, a small motel and RV park on the edge of White Rock, not far from the beach. It is a long, white bank of motel units backed by about a dozen paved RV/camper slots facing each other across the asphalt. I liked to be up front near where the driveway meets the road—#104 is my favourite space. Behind us once we’ve backed in is a concrete retaining wall with an old plank fence that blocks out a big empty lot full of old apple trees. Some of the branches hang over the fence and you can reach the apples.
The last time we stayed there, on a Friday night in August, the lot was almost empty. I backed the Mango, our 1976 VW van, into the site. Directly across from us was a big fifth-wheel trailer with Alberta plates, and parked beside it was a big white pickup with dual tires and chrome. Two fifty-something men sat drinking at the green picnic table they’d dragged over near the trailer hitch.
Emmett—my fifteen-year-old son—hooked the dog’s chain around a leg of our picnic table and then let her out for a pee, tethered her and filled her water dish. Then we climbed inside the van and together we popped the top, pulled down the back seat and arranged our pillows and sleeping bags and the dog’s blanket. We snapped the short mustard-yellow curtains across the back and side windows and the long one that sags across the windshield. We brushed our teeth and brought the dog in, and arranged ourselves for the night—I climbed up into the pop-top, and the boy and the dog lay side by side below. We read for a while and then turned out the lights. I was glad to be there.
Around midnight I woke up to the two men across from us yelling at each other inside the fifth-wheel. Hm. I am a bit of a scrapper, especially when it comes to my sleep, but something made me wary of marching right over and banging on the door. They sounded angry, and drunk. And there was pain in their anger. I climbed down, stepping onto the counter and then down to the floor, and opened the driver’s door. I went around the back of the van and had a pee on the grass and a couple of tokes while I was at it. When I came back around to the front, one of the men was sitting at their picnic table having a smoke. I got back in the van and closed the door and climbed up to my sleeping bag.
Around 1:15 the fighting started up again, and this time it was louder, angrier, drunker than before. The pain was bigger. Then they started fighting physically, and loud banging and crashing sounds came from inside as well as the yelling. I began to be more afraid than pissed off. They were pretty close. Just over there. I called the motel office on my cell phone but got an answering machine. I left a message: I’m in the Volkswagen van. There are two drunk guys fighting in the trailer across from me. Please do something.
Nothing happened. The yelling and swearing and threatening and banging and crashing escalated. Get out of here. Fucking leave! Bang. Crash. Thump. Get the fuck out of here. I don’t give a shit. Go, you bastard! Go! Get out!
The dog was sitting up. Emmett was awake. I climbed down and crouched on the floor and peered over the top of the sagging windshield curtain. I didn’t want them to see us. I’m calling 911, I said. Why? said Emmett. Because I’m afraid, I said. I called 911 and asked for the police and the woman started asking me questions and my voice trembled and my body shook and my brain felt shaky too because I was having trouble comprehending and answering. I don’t know the address of the motel, I said. I can’t remember what street. White Rock, I said. Sh, said Emmett, who was trying to hear what the men were saying in the yelling and fighting. The operator told me the police were on their way and just then Emmett said, Look! One of the men had come out of the trailer with a big red suitcase on wheels, and drunkenly he pulled it behind him on its leash. Two cop cars arrived. That’s a bit much, I thought, for a drunk guy. One car pulled into the driveway. The other car stopped on the road in front of the guy and two officers put him inside. Two more cop cars arrived. This is crazy, I thought. All this for a couple of annoying noisy drunk guys. Three police officers walked into the lot and banged on the trailer door. Come out! Come out! No answer. Bang bang bang on the door. Nothing. They went on tiptoes to try to see in the windows, but they couldn’t. The shortest of the three climbed up on the picnic table and jumped up and down on it, trying to see in the window. He jumped and told the others he saw a man in the bed. He jumped again. This time he saw a rifle beside the bed. The three exchanged glances and said he’d better report that, and away he went. In a very few minutes a swarm of police vehicles arrived. There were maybe ten cars in the road now, ghost cars and regular cars, city cops and RCMP, all with all their lights flashing blue and red. In the middle of them all sat a big new Suburban with no flashing lights.
Whenever anyone came into the trailer’s line of sight, they crouched and ran, guns drawn. Emmett and I could hear some cops behind our van, using it as cover. One said, There are people in there. They knocked on the window and told us that we had to come out. There was a situation involving a weapon across from us. Can we bring our dog? I asked. Leave the dog, they said. They “covered” us with their guns as they escorted us to the Suburban. I stood behind Emmett, hugging his chest with my head against his back. We were cold. I am sorry, an older officer said, but we have to put you in here for your safety, and he held open the Suburban’s door. He locked us in the crew cab, which had bars on the windows. He radioed the licence plate number of the big white pickup truck and asked where the vehicle was registered. Fort McMurray, he said. The boy and I huddled against each other in the crew cab. Good thing we don’t have to pee, I said. I don’t know how we’d go. Mum, the boy said. Be quiet. We watched as the police units readied themselves for action. Amid the flashing lights in a sea of police cars, they secured the perimeter. Taped it off with yellow tape. Evacuated all the motel’s occupants. Moving rapidly, quietly, with discipline in everything they did. Why don’t they just bash the door in? I asked the sergeant. Because there is only one door in and out in the trailer, he said. If the suspect feels trapped inside it could lead to dangerous behaviour.
A while later I asked the sergeant for a drink of water, but no one there had a drink of water. No water bottles and no coffee cups. Everyone’s hands were free. In the murmured or clear conversations I didn’t detect ego or hubris, challenge or hierarchy, sexism, crude language, animosity, challenges, laughter, or banter. Only professional camaraderie and necessary conversation. This is definitely dramatic, I said to the boy, but it’s nothing like TV, is it? That’s because it’s real, Mum, said Emmett. I listened hard, trying to read the atmosphere outside. There was tension, a buzz, but it was quieter, with cleaner lines and an appeal to the senses. No need for background music or added hype. There was the breath you could almost see. The red and blue lights everywhere, and the serious voices. Alert. Fully awake. And there was the fifth-wheel trailer, dark and silent. A suspect inside. Planning who knows what. What do you think he’s going to do? I asked the boy. He’s probably sleeping, he said.
A female cop knelt and leaned over the hood of her car with her gun aimed at the fifth-wheel. Other officers crouched by the hedges with their weapons drawn. They waited. We waited. Nothing happened. Our sergeant came around to our barred window and asked us to tell him again what had happened. Emmett told him that when I was on the phone to 911 he had heard one man say to the other, It’s loaded. And, I’ll shoot your head off. The sergeant looked hard at the boy and said, Did you say that he said, “I’ll shoot your head off”? Yes. Did it sound like a threat to you? Yes. I have to relay this information, the sergeant said. Excuse me. This development brought another escalation of police response. More movement of officers. Growing tension. Low voices. No action. Time passing. What are we waiting for? I asked the sergeant. For the ERT, he said. The Emergency Response Team. Like a SWAT team, only Canadian.
The team gathered right outside our window and prepared for their mission. The strong fit men took off their regular coats and put on flak jackets. They loaded their assault rifles and slammed the bolts home. They put on their helmets and looked to their leader for further direction. The communications truck arrived, and the negotiating expert disappeared into the dark of the apple orchard carrying a megaphone. The police dog and handler arrived, and they too went into the orchard. Could you please ask someone to check on our dog? I asked the sergeant. What’s the dog’s name? he said. Jersey, I said, and he sent someone over. The fifth-wheel remained dark and silent.
This is the police! Come out! Come out! the negotiator called through his megaphone. Poor Jersey, I said. She is going to be so scared. That megaphone right beside her. All those cops around the van. The sergeant came back over to us and said, There’s going to be a loud bang in a minute. We’re throwing in a stun grenade. But then the police dog started barking and the guy in the fifth-wheel came right out.
And that was it. As dawn approached, the police put him in a car and took him away. All the cars and equipment had dispersed by 5:30 a.m. We went back to the Mango and cuddled the dog and slept until ten. I went out and walked to the end of the driveway where it met the road, where all the action had taken place. Nothing there. Not a scrap of tape, not a bit of paper. Not a trace of what had happened. It was just an ordinary empty road under a sunny summer sky.
In my bare feet I walked up the sidewalk and looked into the orchard. Someone had set out a TV table of items—a couple of florist vases, a pink ashtray, some chopsticks, a pair of knitted bedroom slippers. A hand-made sign read: Take It! It’s Yours! I looked into the orchard, where the grass had been trampled into a path to the fence. I could see the gap in the fence, see the Mango, from the apple tree side.
Back at the Mango, I made some coffee and sat at the picnic table reading an article about Eliot Spitzer in an old New Yorker. An apple fell from a branch that hung over the fence and thumped onto the ground. A police car pulled in and let out a guy, who went into the fifth-wheel. He came out shortly after with wet hair and a different shirt on, and he nodded at me as he went out to the street and started walking up the hill. A few minutes later I heard sounds in the apple orchard. Apples were falling. I got up and went over to the gap in the fence and looked in. There was the guy from the fifth-wheel, up in one of the gnarly old trees. He was picking apples and pitching them at the ground.
After a shower I went into the motel office and the cheerful woman who managed the place during the day asked me what had happened. I told her the story, and finished by suggesting she might want to kick those guys right out. And to arrange call forward so someone would answer the phone at night if there was an emergency. She nodded as if to say, I know, I know, and then she shook her head and with an indulgent-mother smile said, Oh that Arnie. I knew he was going to go too far one of these nights. You know these guys? I said. Oh yes, she said. Arnie. And that was his brother, who came for a visit. Arnie’s been depressed lately, poor fella.
Emmett and I washed the cereal bowls and spoons and put them in the cupboards and drawer. We packed up the coffee machine. We put the rear seat back up, pulled down the pop-top, stuffed in the canvas all the way round and secured it. We unsnapped and pushed back all the curtains. We stuffed the sleeping bags into their sacks and loaded the duffel bags and cooler and suitcases into the back. Jersey got up on the back seat and shoved her nose out the broken fly window. The boy was already in the passenger seat with his iPod. I poured sand on the puddle of oil underneath the Mango’s engine and poured in another litre. And we drove away, heading east. Did all that really happen? I asked Emmett. Yup, he said. All that! I said again. All that huge response, all that razzle dazzle of police action, and for what? What was it about, really? Some drunk guy, Emmett said. Some drunk guy and his drunk brother.