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 Gina’s 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 weren’t 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 didn’t seem enthralled.
     "So what is it?" I asked, in between songs. "You haven’t said a word about it and I know you want to."
     Gina looked up, lifting her face from the coffee fumes she’d been inhaling and watched me with unmasked curiosity. "You know that? You know that I want to tell you something?"
     "If you really weren’t in the mood to talk, you wouldn’t have come tonight," I said.
     "I guess you’re 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.
     "It’s my mom," Gina said. "It’s not a big secret or anything, but I wasn’t sure what was wrong and I didn’t want to say anything until I knew for sure."
     "So what is it?" I asked. "Is she sick again?"
     "She’s going in for surgery," Gina said. "Right before Thanksgiving."
     "Shit," I said. "What kind of surgery?"
     "Cancer," Gina said. "They’re 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.
     "She’s having her surgery on Tuesday. I’m gonna go after class the next day when she comes home. I’ll just skip Wednesday."
     "I’m sorry, Gina," I said.
     "You don’t have to be," Gina said. "It’s not your fault. My mom hates doctors and she only went because she started having all these blackouts and then they found it. She’s 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. "It’s 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 didn’t say anything after that. We finished our coffee and after two more songs, Gina motioned me that she wanted to leave. We left Ruta Maya’s and found my car in silence.

* * *

     Gina asked me to drop her off at Luisa’s 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 hasn’t 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t climb it.
     "What are you doing?" Gina asked.
     "I’m 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 weren’t 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 standstill.
     "Shit!" I screamed again, angry at myself for getting into this situation. I looked to Gina and she was silent, betraying no real emotion.
     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. "It’s okay, Heather," she said. "There’s a gas station two blocks up. We’ll 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 weren’t anywhere near traffic and the street lights were dimmer here than from where we’d 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 our way.
     "Young ladies, we gotcha! We’ll take care of you!" one of them was saying.
     I froze, unsure whether to run or lock myself in the car. I didn’t look to Gina – I was trying to plot my own course of action, sure that whatever it was, she’d be right next to me, or running behind me. I clenched my purse tightly, but my body still wasn’t 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.
     "I’m gonna sit in here, if that’s all right," the old man said.
     "Okay," I said, unsure if I really had an option to refuse.
     The old man sat in the driver’s 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.
     "We’re 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.
     "We’ll help," the other man said adamantly.
     "I said we got it taken care of," the old man said, angrily. "Ya’ll can leave. We don’t need no help."
     The leather jacketted man’s 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 car’s progress. He wouldn’t 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? You’ll give us a little something right, for helpin’ you out?"
     "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 help."
     "You think you could give us a few dollars ma’am, for helping you out?" the old man said, with a small smile.
     "Sure, okay," I said.
     Still clutching my purse, I sat on the driver’s 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 I’d gotten so used to seeing Gina with hers, that I’d 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 words.
     "You didn’t do shit. You’re not gonna get anything!" the old man said.
     "She’s gonna give us ALL some money, so shut the hell up," the jacket man said. "You gonna give us all some money, right? That’s 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.
     "I’m 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. "We’re not gonna get paid?" one of them said, sounding angry.
     "I’m giving it to him," I said, pointing to the old man. "You guys can divide it however you want."
     "He’s 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 I’d 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’, that’s 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.
     "We’re fine," Gina said, through my still-open door.
     The cruiser drove off, toward the men who were almost out of sight.
     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 Luisa’s where I thought I might join in and say a prayer of my own.