Volume 35, Number 1

A California Stop

David Larsen

Stately, seemingly a cut above, the slender, stylish woman, no older than forty, perhaps younger, took Wylie Snyder’s breath away—as the old saw goes. Though, in this instance, it was literally the case: Wylie couldn’t catch his breath. The sight of the woman, long-legged, statuesque, tanned, tastefully-coiffed, brought a gasp that rose from the deepest recesses within him, a dark place only the devil himself would dare take refuge. He understood that the tempter was on the loose—more so these days than ever—but the thought that Lucifer could lurk within a devout, honest man, a good Christian in line at the Department of Public Safety’s headquarters of all places, caused Wylie to shudder.

There she stood, in the line next to the column of offenders Wylie found himself at the back of. No more than fifteen feet away. His father would have uttered something like “She’s a sight for sore eyes.” Or “How’s ‘bout that?” and, for once, the old ne’er-do-well would’ve been right. She really was something.

Directly in front of him, a diminutive, white-haired woman, perhaps eighty, a saintly-looking lady he feared might recognize him from the Church of the Abundant Life, turned and glared into his blinking eyes. She registered her out-of-nowhere disgust with an emphatic harrumph, then turned her back on poor, unsuspecting Wylie. She scooched forward an inch or two.

You can run but you can’t hide, chuckled Wylie. He shuffled in place, looked down at the worse-for-wear tiled floor and wheezed. What’s gotten into me lately, he wondered. I don’t behave like this. My mother didn’t raise me to think unkindly of the elderly. And I certainly don’t make eyes at women, complete strangers, across the room. It’s got to be this confounded heat. One hundred degrees, one day after the next. Everyone’s on edge. And here I stand in this line huffing and puffing like Quasimodo.

Wylie needed to get this business over an unfair traffic ticket taken care of as quickly as possible; the slow-moving lines were a hindrance and a disgrace. A temperate man, an elected official in Demarest County, a patient man, he did have his limits, and this unnecessary inconvenience was beginning to piss him off.

He had half a mind to contact the governor’s office about such inefficiency. He had connections. Though he was reluctant to use them. The upside of being a political insider and possessing access to powerful people was knowing that you were owed favors. It was like having a two-dollar bill in your pocket, something you wanted to hold onto as long as you can. The downside was that it could too easily be spent, squandered. Then you might find yourself with empty pockets and a defunct credit card. Also, the governor could be testy if you caught him on a bad day and Wylie had his sights on a higher office; he couldn’t afford to get on the powerful man’s wrong side.

Once he got this matter of the questionable traffic offense out of the way, he intended to go home, have dinner with Samantha, then rush off to the men’s fellowship that convened every Wednesday evening in the basement of the Church of the Abundant Life. The group of up to twenty movers and shakers met to read from the Bible, pray and shoot the breeze, come hell or high water. In some ways the meeting was the high point in Wylie’s otherwise dreary existence. Insurance is a far cry from exciting. The group had met every Wednesday for more than ten years and Wylie was a member in good standing. More than that: he was a presence and he knew it. He was, after all, a leader in the community, certainly not one to go off the deep end and ogle a member of the opposite sex from across the room, no matter how enticing she might be. Yet here he stood, ogling and gasping for air, like some deviant who frequented those clubs on the outskirts of town. “Those places.” But she was alluring. No doubt about it. And Wylie was a relatively young man, fifty-two—with troublesomely impure thoughts and a heartbeat that proved he was still alive and kicking… sinfully.

For goodness’ sake, he told himself, I’m not one to give in to this sort of thing. I’m not a womanizer. Yet this just might be fodder for an editorial in the church bulletin on the temptations the devil sets before us. The Lord works in his own devious ways. His editorial about being the son of an alcoholic had been well received. Why not this?

Besides, Wylie Snyder? A philanderer? No way. He’d put all of that behind him. He was now a husband, a good one, and the father of two daughters, one recently married, the other off at college. He just didn’t do that sort of thing, flirting with women, fantasizing about them.

Hardly deviants, the folks in the assemblage were nothing more than traffic offenders, far from hardened criminals; they, like Wylie, were solid, down-to-earth residents of Dorsey, the county seat of Demarest County, on the western edge of the panhandle, a god-fearing, Bible-touting community of fifteen-thousand souls, most of them deserving of grace. Good old Dorsey, a town inhabited by decent-enough citizens. Wylie himself was chair of the county’s Republican party, a position of prominence he’d earned by keeping his nose clean and avoiding any hint of impropriety.

“You’re on the city council, aren’t you?” The woman in front of him again glared at Wylie. Her eyes, magnified by her thick, wire-framed lenses and her squished, wrinkled face, burned up into Wylie’s nostrils. A sweet old lady was suddenly an owl at midnight, sizing up its prey.

“No ma’am,” said Wylie. “I’m a county commissioner.” He smiled, looked around to see who might be listening—no one, really—then reached out to shake the woman’s hand.

She wanted no part of it. “That’s worse,” she said. Her breath gave hint as to her all-too-evident mortality. “I just want you to know that I don’t approve of your making it a crime for a woman to travel through our county to get decent health care across the state line. If you want to live in the stone age, go right ahead. Just don’t drag the rest of us down with you.”

Oh God, thought Wylie, not a Democrat. I thought they’d all died off. “Well, ma’am, we believe that getting an abortion is taking an innocent life. And we don’t feel as if we should, in any manner, condone such an act. So, we believe that by making it a crime to drive through Demarest County to obtain an ungodly procedure in another state we’re actually doing the Lord’s work. We received a call from the governor commending us on our efforts. We believe we’re on the side of the angels in this.”

“Believe, believe, believe,” she snorted. “That’s some pretty highfalutin talk from someone who’ll never find himself in a situation like too many women find themselves in.” She wriggled her nose, then stepped back. “And don’t talk to me about God’s work. I’ve been a member of the Disciples of Christ all of my life. We don’t hold to sticking our noses into other peoples’ business. That’s what we believe.”

“If you feel that way, you should come to the next meeting of the county commissioners court and let us know what you think. But you should understand that we feel we’re doing what’s right.”


Samantha was in the kitchen when Wylie came through the door at the side of the house. His wife smiled as he plopped into a chair at the table, a laminate-and-chrome monstrosity still unburdened by their Walmart silverware, purchased on sale, and their wedding-gift, heavy, stoneware plates and bowls.

“You won’t believe what happened,” he said. He tried to catch his breath, but couldn’t. “When I was arranging a court date for that ticket I got last week, a woman fainted in one of the other lines.”

Samantha turned away from the spaghetti sauce she was stirring on the stove and stared at him as if he had told her that he had recently come to the conclusion that Darwin might be right about everything. “Was she all right?”

He stared at her. At that breathless moment it was as if he had never really taken the time to notice how attractive his wife was or hadn’t in a long time. He blinked, wiped moisture from his eyes and forehead, then said, “I think she’s okay. They did take her off in an ambulance. But by that time, she was sitting up.”

“The poor thing,” said Samantha. Her face got that pouty expression she wore to convey almost every emotion, from sadness, to anger, to being hurt, even as notice of her late-night availability before bedtime, a notification offered less and less as of late.

That pout. It was just one more thing about Samantha that annoyed Wylie more and more as time went by. But, “till death do us part”. He’d made that vow years ago. And, if nothing else, Wylie was a man of conviction… and faith. He had to admit that some of the juice might have oozed out of his marriage. Things will work out. Samantha’s a peach. His wife was a Methodist. She found the Church of the Abundant Life a little too austere. So Wylie attended without her. Yet she had attended once—to be witness to his salvation the Sunday morning of his baptism.

He didn’t tell Samantha anything more about the ideal woman other than, in his estimate, she was about fifteen years younger than they were… and that she appeared to be in perfect health. He kept to himself how absolutely taken he’d been with the stunner.


It was after ten when Wylie arrived home from the meeting of the men’s fellowship, completely sober (no alcohol at his church); the television set was on; Samantha was in her beige terrycloth robe sound asleep on the sofa. For no more than a minute he gazed at her exposed thighs; her nearly translucent flesh in the light from the TV was as soft and welcoming as it had been when they met. He remembered his blustery father telling everyone, “She’s a good starter wife. She’ll do, until Wylie decides it’s time to move up in the world”. The fool.

When he clicked the remote Samantha opened her eyes and squinted like a six-year-old awakened when the movie was over. The images on the screen disappeared.

“How was the meeting?” she asked. She rubbed her eyes and sat up.

“It was okay,” said Wylie. “But there’s some disagreement on the decision about not allowing women to drive on highways inside the county if they’re going out of state to obtain an abortion. I thought everyone would be behind us on this.”

Samantha sighed. “You know how I feel.”

Wylie harrumphed and stared at his wife, lately, almost a stranger. “You’ve let me know how much you disapprove,” he grumbled. He paused to take in air. “It’s nothing to get all worked up over. It’s unenforceable, but it puts Demarest County on the map…politically. The governor himself has called and congratulated us on our actions.” Wylie again wheezed like a fireplace bellows with a hole in it. The late-night drive home had made him more than a little light-headed.

“Wylie, don’t you see that it makes you look like a hypocrite when you make a political decision and cloak it in religion.”

He chuckled, then took a deep breath. “Everyone does it,” he told her. “It’s how the game is played. At least in this state it is.”

Samantha stared at him—not even a hint of a pout on her still faultless face. Finally, she said, “When we first met you weren’t so adamant about keeping a woman from getting help.” She exhaled then bit at her lower lip. “We took advantage of anonymity in Colorado, or have you forgotten about that?”

“We were young,” said Wylie, shortly. It was a topic they had avoided for all the years of their marriage. Her bringing it up tonight, when he was tired and unable to put his thoughts together clearly, was a low blow. It hadn’t been his finest moment, more than thirty years ago. He didn’t have regrets, not really; he should’ve prayed, asking for understanding, if not forgiveness, but he hadn’t—he wasn’t big on personal supplication. “And, besides,” he added, “that all happened before I joined the church.” That his wife had been with another man before they met didn’t bother Wylie, at the time…or now. Looking back at the situation, he saw it as their having to do what needed doing at that time. “Times change,” he said.

“Yes,” said Samantha. “We were young.”

“I can’t change my vote. What’s done is done.” He stopped and looked out the window into the summer darkness. “Today, a little old woman chastised me about what the county’s doing. But, like I said, I can’t change my mind.”

“Even when you know you’re not being honest?” Samantha shrugged, then leaned back and shook her head. Her robe opened. Any hint of a pout that Wylie detected on her drawn face was genuine.

Yes, he thought, we were young. And times do change.

The two, husband and wife, sat in the darkness for what seemed to Wylie an eternity. It had been a difficult day, what with his having to take care of the traffic ticket and all. A California stop, is what the young, female cop had called his violation. Everyone slides through a stop sign, Wylie, for the umpteenth time, assured himself. Then there was the crabby old woman, plus the great-looking woman. This must be what hell feels like. Temptation with a heavy dose of uncertainty.

“Oh,” said Samantha. “Linda Clayton called.” Samantha, now fully awake and irritated, felt the need to talk. He wished she didn’t. “The woman who fainted this afternoon is named Diane Tolliver. Linda told me that she’s the new minister at the First Christian Church.” She smiled, wanly.

Wylie thought about the woman, the beautiful creature who stood so regally against the wall at the DPS headquarters. How pale she was when she collapsed and when another woman offered her a bottle of water. “A woman?” asked Wylie. “They’re going to have a woman minister?”

Samantha shrugged. “Like you said, ‘times change.’ Even people change. We all do.” She looked into Wylie’s eyes. She took a deep breath. “Though not always for the best.”

“Maybe my father was right,” said Wylie. “He just didn’t give a damn about anything.”

Samantha took a deep breath, shook her head and stood.

With his wife out of the room, off to bed—without him—Wylie eased himself into the wingback chair across the room. It felt as if the piece of furniture, a handsome chair that they’d picked up for a song at a used furniture store in Lubbock, embraced him, folded its wings around him as he hoped that an angel might someday do. Though, truthfully, Wylie didn’t believe any of that. Angels? Hardly. The devil? For sure. Wylie gasped for air. No, he decided, I’m not having a heart attack. I’m just tired. Tired and confused. It’s all too much, he thought. It’s all too much. Sometimes you just roll through the intersection without coming to a complete stop and you hope nobody’s watching. Everybody does it.