Dispatch 21 (Nov. 19, 1998)
Gina was still a little sullen when we did
the Ruta Maya
thing, sipping extra mocha coffees and ignoring the minor hubbub of people as they came
and went folks in black turtlenecks with asymmetrical hair.
I thought this might be a really bad place to have gone
given Ginas sad state, but on the other hand I thought maybe the moody, confessional
vibe of the coffeehouse might make her open up and tell me exactly what was wrong.
They had musicians playing open mikes and the folksy,
almost Indigo Girls duo might not have annoyed me so much if the music werent so
loud, ruining any chance of conversation Gina and I had.
A tall bald man picked up a toddler and spun her around in
his arms, making little dancing moves near the mini-stage. That made me smile, but even
when I pointed it out to Gina, she didnt seem enthralled.
"So what is it?" I asked, in between songs.
"You havent said a word about it and I know you want to."
Gina looked up, lifting her face from the coffee fumes
shed been inhaling and watched me with unmasked curiosity. "You know that? You
know that I want to tell you something?"
"If you really werent in the mood to talk, you
wouldnt have come tonight," I said.
"I guess youre right," Gina said.
"So what is it?"
Gina took another sip of her coffee, looked at me, took
another sip, and looked at me again. I looked to the stage to see if the girls were going
to play again before Gina came out of her self-induced pause. Mercifully, they were still
on break, tuning and chatting it up with one of the waitresses.
"Its my mom," Gina said. "Its
not a big secret or anything, but I wasnt sure what was wrong and I didnt want
to say anything until I knew for sure."
"So what is it?" I asked. "Is she sick
"Shes going in for surgery," Gina said.
"Right before Thanksgiving."
"Shit," I said. "What kind of
"Cancer," Gina said. "Theyre removing
a tumor from
She stopped. She looked back over her shoulder to the
musicians, then back at me. "
from inside," Gina finished.
v"When do you leave town?" I asked.
"Shes having her surgery on Tuesday. Im
gonna go after class the next day when she comes home. Ill just skip
"Im sorry, Gina," I said.
"You dont have to be," Gina said.
"Its not your fault. My mom hates doctors and she only went because she started
having all these blackouts and then they found it. Shes probably had it for a long
time, and she never goes to see a doctor, so it might be
I waited as Gina looked down into the half-empty cup of
coffee again. She was breathing deeply.
it might be spread out. In her body."
"Okay, this is for some friends of ours working out
here," one of the musicians a tall, thin blonde woman who looked much older
than the other said. "Its called Workin in the Valley.
The musicians began, throwing their arms at their twin
acoustic guitars before half-staff mikes set up in front of them as they sang, seated.
Gina didnt say anything after that. We finished our
coffee and after two more songs, Gina motioned me that she wanted to leave. We left Ruta
Mayas and found my car in silence.
* * *
Gina asked me to drop her off at Luisas house, where I guessed she would talk to the woman
about her mother and say a prayer.
I drove straight East on 4th Street, heading
for the other side of I-35. I passed Congress Street and headed toward the area near the
Convention Center where the rapid expansion of downtown hasnt yet transformed the
area into anything more than an ugly concrete cityscape.
My car was jostling and bouncing because of a train track
that ran on the right side of the road, parallel to my course. I wasnt paying a lot
of attention, my mind elsewhere, when I ran up on the tracks.
I was staying close to the right side of the road and
suddenly, the train tracks had sprung up and I found my car locked inside the rails.
Trying to stay calm, I turned sharp left. My wheel bounced against the left rail, but
couldnt climb it.
"What are you doing?" Gina asked.
"Im trying to shit!" I screamed. I
was trying to slow the car down and maybe go in reverse, but it was too late. I heard a
sickening squeal as the underside of the car scraped against the rails and we slid for a
few yards. I hit the brakes, but they had no effect. By this point, the wheels
werent even touching ground anymore.
We came to a final stop. I put the car in reverse and hit
the gas, but nothing happened. The tires spun, but with nothing beneath them, we were at a
"Shit!" I screamed again, angry at myself for
getting into this situation. I looked to Gina and she was silent, betraying no real
I opened my door and got out to look. The car was up about
two inches from the ground, trapped on the rails like a dead fish.
Gina got out of the car. She put a hand on my shoulder.
"Its okay, Heather," she said. "Theres a gas station two blocks
up. Well call a tow truck, okay?"
I nodded absently. I opened the car door again to grab my
purse and that was when I heard footsteps.
Several pairs, in fact, crunching the gravel toward us
from the direction of the highway. I looked around, lifting my head out from the car and
noticed that we werent anywhere near traffic and the street lights were dimmer here
than from where wed come. I looked to Gina and she was looking at them. Three men,
dressed in street clothes (snow caps, tattered jackets, lots of facial hair), were walking
"Young ladies, we gotcha! Well take care of
you!" one of them was saying.
I froze, unsure whether to run or lock myself in the car.
I didnt look to Gina I was trying to plot my own course of action, sure that
whatever it was, shed be right next to me, or running behind me. I clenched my purse
tightly, but my body still wasnt moving in its panic.
They were walking fast, and before I could do either, one
of them was already here, having jogged the last few yards toward us.
"Young lady," he said, and I saw him clearly
enough to see the age in his face. He had a gray beard and a black face, his eyes
scrunched and his posture stooped. "We gonna help you get car off the tracks. This
happened before, we help the guy out."
Gina had stepped back on the opposite side of the car and
before I could say anything, the two other men were already next to the hood, putting
their hands on the front of the car and getting ready to push.
"Im gonna sit in here, if thats all
right," the old man said.
"Okay," I said, unsure if I really had an option
The old man sat in the drivers seat and I felt like
an idiot for having left the keys in the ignition. He put the gear shift in neutral and
signaled the men to start pushing.
At that moment, two other men approached, coming from the
same direction the others had arrived from.
"Were gonna help," one of them, a tall man
with a baseball cap and a leather jacket said.
"We got it," the old man inside the car said.
"Well help," the other man said adamantly.
"I said we got it taken care of," the old man
said, angrily. "Yall can leave. We dont need no help."
The leather jacketted mans companion went to join
the men in front on pushing duty, getting dirty looks from the others. They all began to
push and the old man steered, craning his neck back to see where they were going. The car
began to move backward on the rails.
The man in the leather jacket walked next to me as I
followed the cars progress. He wouldnt shut up: "They had a barricade
here, but somebody moved it. Second time this thing happened this week. We helped this man
out too when the happened. He gave us a couple of dollars. You gotta be careful
cause you might get a flat from this. You gonna give us a little something, right,
when we finish? Youll give us a little something right, for helpin you
"Yes, I guess so," I said, trying to ignore him.
Through all this, Gina walked on the other side of the
car, looking as if she were sleepwalking. The men finished pushing and the old man had
steered the car back onto solid ground. He sprang out from the car and came to me.
"We gotcha off the tracks, young lady. You be all
right to drive now," he said.
"Thank you," I said. "Thanks for the
"You think you could give us a few dollars
maam, for helping you out?" the old man said, with a small smile.
"Sure, okay," I said.
Still clutching my purse, I sat on the drivers seat
with my feet touching the street as I rummaged in my purse. The five men were all circled
around me, leaning in as I grabbed some money from my pocketbook. It was unusual for me to
be carrying around a purse to begin with, but lately Id gotten so used to seeing
Gina with hers, that Id bought my own.
I saw that I had three one dollar bills and a twenty.
The old man and the man in the leather jacket were having
"You didnt do shit. Youre not gonna get
anything!" the old man said.
"Shes gonna give us ALL some money, so shut the
hell up," the jacket man said. "You gonna give us all some money, right?
Thats what you said," he added, looking at me.
I pulled out the money. I wadded up the three dollar bills
and gave them to the man in leather.
"Im giving him some dollars and I have a
twenty. You guys will have to split it, okay?" I said to the others.
Two of the men grunted disapproval. "Were not
gonna get paid?" one of them said, sounding angry.
"Im giving it to him," I said, pointing to
the old man. "You guys can divide it however you want."
"Hes not gonna give us anything!" one of
the men standing behind the others said.
I held out the twenty. The old man and one of the others
reached for it simultaneously, and for a horrible moment, they were both trying to grab it
out of my hands. Their cold hands encircled mine and twisted. I felt a sharp pain, as they
both tried to rip the money from my grip.
I was scared, suddenly aware that Gina and I were alone
here. That instead of the twenty, they could easily throw me out of the car and drive it
off. They could take my purse. They could do anything they wanted to. There were five of
them and two of us, and they were a hell of a lot bigger, even the old man.
I was about to scream, the sound of it welling up in my
lungs, when I caught movement from my left.
"Let go of her hand!" Gina said, her voice a
guttural, angry blast Id never heard before. I looked and there she was, holding out
her pepper spray toward the men. "Take the money and go."
They let go of my hand, the twenty having vanished from
it, and started backing away.
"We were just helpin, thats all,"
one of the men said and they were walking away, the five of them, back toward the highway.
Gina put down her arm and started waking back to the
passenger side. As she got in, I heard gravel crunching and saw lights as a car approached
us from behind. I turned and saw a police cruiser.
"Everything okay?" a police officer asked from
an open window.
"Were fine," Gina said, through my
The cruiser drove off, toward the men who were almost out
I swung my legs into the car, turned on the ignition and
shut the door. My hands were shaking on the steering wheel.
I looked over to Gina. Her eyes were blank as she stared
through the windshield toward the highway. In her lap, the pepper spray was still clutched
tightly in her hand.
The car moved effortlessly as I hit the gas, getting us
off of East 4th Street and toward Luisas where I thought I might join in
and say a prayer of my own.