For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
California, May 1968...
“Tina, Tina, jellybeana, she’s a witch just like Serena, twitch her nose and blink her eyes, and she will make the dead bods rise,” sang a large curly headed sixth grader from across the aisle.
He laughed out loud and jabbed the kid next to him with his elbow. Hector smiled weakly, managing not to laugh along with the older boy who was responsible for all the commotion. He leaned forward and his head touched the seat in front of him. Hector tried to get Tina’s attention and communicate with his eyes that he was only going along with the teasing to keep from getting pounded himself. Let’s face it, being a ten-year-old and a minority in an overwhelmingly white public school was hard enough, no use rocking the boat by taking sides here. Besides, he knew that Tina was safe enough, the whole town watched after her anyway.
“Hey now, knock that crap off little man, don't make me stop this bus and write your name onto the list!” hollered our driver. The list was not someplace you wanted end up, unless of course you craved extra homework and didn’t need recess the rest of your life.
“No sir Mr. Dupree,” Davy Myers said, sitting back down and glaring at Tina.
Lionel Dupree had been driving this bus for the last couple of years, ever since he returned from his tour in Viet Nam. Not a particularly large man, in fact he was not much bigger than the Myers kid, who was pretty big for his age, standing in at five foot six inches. But it wasn’t his stature that kept the peace it was the look in his eyes. A look that projected scary images of unconscionable horrors and unknown demons, Lionel wasn’t someone to mess with or cross, you just knew that. But the look was really all he ever needed, nobody ever pushed him beyond that and once the situation was cooled, he was back to the happy-go-lucky fella that all the teachers and parents knew and loved.
“What about you Hector, are we cool?”
“Yes sir,” Hector mumbled.
“That’s better, we’re cool babies, we’re cool, right,” Lionel said, a big smile contradicting a menacing stare!
Tina turned her head towards the aisle, opened her eyes and looked directly at Davy and Hector. She smiled at them, and the curly haired bully started to say something, but suddenly just looked down at his shoes instead. Hector leaned back and smiled over at his little friend from around the big sixth grader. The bus lurched forward as it pulled away from the curb and continued the five-mile trip to Nestle Avenue Elementary School.
Tina twisted 180 degrees in her seat, pulled her knees up and tucked her feet underneath her. She lay her head on the thinly covered backrest and watched the world pass by the window. Focusing her attention on the telephone lines, she concentrated intensely, a game she liked to play because it made her tummy tingle, like a roller coaster she imagined, although she had never actually ridden one. She smiled and giggled to herself, her little head bouncing lightly on the backrest in time with the rhythm of the road.
“What a weirdo,” Davy Myers mumbled to himself, watching the little girl out of the corner of his eye.
“Shut up Davy,” Hector said under his breath, hoping he had not actually been heard, silently cursing his sudden burst of courage!
“Right on little brown brother, right on,” Lionel said, flashing his big toothy grin at Hector through the rear-view mirror. It was 8:15 in the morning, the day just starting for most, just ending for some, and quite possibly the last day on earth for one.
Victor Lopez finished topping off his pick-up truck and tapped the nozzle of the gas pump on the rim of the tank. Turning slowly to his left he re-hung the handle and hose with one hand while he spun the gas cap back in place with the other.
“Oh man, I better wash up,” he said out loud, catching a whiff of his hands and frowning.
His wife Maria really hated the smell of gasoline and seeing as he was headed home for a late breakfast he thought that he would wash up early for her sake. Victor and a small crew of day laborers had been out all night baling hay in the cool of the darkness, a common practice. It’s a process that needs to be performed while there is plenty of moisture in the air in order to keep the bales tight and neat.
Then, after a couple days drying in the hot sun, he would return with a new crew and a bale wagon to collect the bundles. In the mean time he was tired, hungry, and anxious to get home to the hot meal that he knew Maria would have waiting for him. Lord above, how he loved that woman, she was so much more than he deserved, he knew that. But, to his credit, he had made it his personal mission to give her the best life that he could manage, and to fill it with as much happiness as she could possibly stand.
He never did understand how such a beautiful woman could fall in love with such an ordinary man as himself. His mother had tried to explain once, that it was all part of God’s plan, to bring two people together, to give them the opportunity to recognize his gift of one for the other. And occasionally, if the two were listening to their own hearts, if they were able to acknowledge the instincts that only they could feel, then the seed that was planted would grow into a love everlasting.
Victor was thankful that he had listened to his heart that day so many years ago, and had not let his mind convince him that he was otherwise unworthy. He had seen a light in Maria’s eyes, a sparkle, that felt as though the Lord was winking at him, whispering, here is your destiny. He wasn’t sure whether or not she had the same experience, but he was pretty sure that it was God who kept putting them together in spite of life’s many obstacles. To be perfectly honest, there was really no reason for them to be together, other than they were meant to be together. He smiled to himself as he climbed into the truck and closed the door. Yeah, he would go home and have a mighty fine breakfast, take a nice hot shower, and hopefully, if his son was napping or suitably occupied, maybe even make love to his wife before dashing off around the ranch the rest of the day checking up on this and that. He reached across the bench seat to the passenger side and patted his daughter’s favorite picture book.
“Hop on Pop,” he said softly.
Waving to the clerk inside the filling station, Victor started the engine and pulled away, the bells ringing twice as the tires rolled over the trip cord on the ground. He switched on the radio and listened to Richie Valens singing “Oh Donna, Oh Donna…”
“To bad this guy is dead, he could have been big as the Beatles man,” Victor thought out loud.
Turning out of the driveway and onto the highway, he merged easily with the light Monday morning traffic. It was already hot out and he drove with the window down, his arm cocked at a forty-five degree angle, half in and half out of the pick-up. Even with his dark brown complexion he had a visible ‘trucker’s tan’ going. It was par for the course given the long hours he spent behind the wheel of one vehicle or another. He shot a one-handed wave at several passing cars and trucks, as was the custom in these small farming communities, Hell, everyone knew everyone else around here anyway. Victor looked out through his windshield and saw the big blue sky spreading across it.
“Man, gonna be another gorgeous day,” he said aloud to nobody in particular.
“Gracias Father,” he said, lifting his crucifix to his lips and kissing it, then stuffing it back into his shirt. The view in every direction was the same, pale blue sky and scattered white, wispy clouds. It really was a nice day in the making. Victor saw the school bus up ahead. It was waiting to turn right onto Nestle Avenue. He sped up and then rolled slowly along side, knowing that his daughter would be in her usual seat on the driver’s side of the bus.
Sure enough, there she was, he spotted her long dark hair with the pink headband on top, pulling her hair back away from her face. He tooted his horn lightly and leaned across to the passenger side of the pick-up, waving to his little girl. Tina looked over and saw her dad and turned in her seat, getting up onto her knees. She placed both of her hands against the window palms flush, and bounced up and down excitedly in her seat. “Papa, Papa,” she said lightly rapping on the window with both hands.
“OK now, sit on down baby girl before you hurt yourself,” Lionel said sternly but with a smile.
Tina sat back down on her heels and leaned her face towards the window, resting her forehead on the glass. Victor continued to wave, waiting at the traffic stop, and watched as his daughter settled back down into her seat. She leaned back a bit and put her two index fingers up to the glass, tracing out the shape of a heart with them. Looking straight into her father’s eyes through the glass, she said to him, “Te adoro Papa.”
Even though he couldn’t actually hear her, he could read her meaning and the words on her face, and he smiled brightly. He blew her a kiss as the stoplight changed to green and she pretended to catch it and put into her coat pocket. The bus then lurched forward and turned onto Nestle Avenue continuing the journey toward the elementary school. Victor sat back up and slowly cruised through the intersection, about ten seconds and five horn blasts later than he probably should have. He flashed the angry motorist behind him a ‘peace sign,’ and then checked his look in the rear-view mirror, adjusting the brim of his hat. Settling his arm back into position on the open window he tapped his fingers to the beat of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ by Eric Burden and The Animals.
Maria looked up at the cow hanging on the wall, the clock in its belly read 8:30, her husband would be along any time now. She walked over to the fridge and pulled out a bowl full of fresh eggs and set it on the counter near the stove. Opening the oven door she pulled out a heavy iron skillet and set it on the front burner. She turned to fetch some milk for the scrambled eggs and stopped suddenly, returned to the stove, and moved the skillet to a back burner, remembering that her son was able to climb up and reach things now.
“Mensa, Maria,” she said out loud, scolding herself, no use tempting fate she thought.
Maria started to switch on the burner and then decided to give Victor a few more minutes to arrive. Besides, everyone knows that breakfast is always best right out of the frying pan, piping hot, especially the machaca that she was planning to serve this morning. It was one of her husband’s favorites, he loved to tear the tortillas into pieces and scoop up the delicious mixture of scrambled eggs, onions, cilantro and shredded beef, topped with a fair amount of her home made salsa (she whipped up a fresh batch every day).
Oh, how she liked to watch him eat, it always made her feel so good seeing him enjoy the things that she prepared. It reminded her how much she loved being a wife, a partner, and a mother. That the life she had was the destiny she had always dreamed of. If you asked her, she would tell you that true love was always in the little things, and she was so grateful that God had sent her a man who understood that, without needing to have it explained to him.
She picked up the bowl of eggs from the countertop and put them back in the fridge to keep them from spoiling in the heat. This house was a blessing and she was grateful, but boy was it remarkably uncomfortable when the swamp cooler wasn’t working! A horn honked outside and Maria leaned across the sink to look out the window.
It was Randy and Jesus, probably stopping by to pick up something or other from the tool shed. She waved to them as they cruised by the house, a small cloud of dust following the truck. Maria slid the curtains shut to block out the sunlight trying to keep the house as cool as possible. At least there was a merciful little breeze and it blew the gingham curtains back at her as she walked away from the counter.
“Where is that man,” she muttered to herself, looking up at the cow clock again. Maria thought about inviting the fellas in for coffee to keep her occupied until Victor came home, well, really to keep her from worrying. She didn’t like it when circumstances delayed him, it made her nervous, and it wasn’t like him to be late for anything, especially a meal. She changed her mind about the coffee halfway to the kitchen door. She suspected that Victor might be more frisky than hungry this morning after being out in the fields all night, so company was probably not such a good idea. Maria blushed a little thinking about that possibility, well, maybe she was feeling the same way. Hey, a pillow can’t hug you back, she thought, a girl can only take so much, right?
“Mama, my shoes won’t tie,” Gilbert whined, walking into the room carrying a shoe in each chubby little hand. Her son had slimmed down considerably over the last year or so, finally getting some height to go with his girth. But he was still her little ‘gordo’, and he looked so cute shuffling into the room across the linoleum floor in his socks and a “Mickey Mouse” tee shirt from last summer’s vacation to Disneyland.
“Come here mijo, mommy will help you fix those old shoes,” she said fixing her face into a cute little pout as she knelt down to pick him up. Gilbert ran towards her, slipping along the way, and fell into her waiting arms. His giggles were muffled as his mother held him tightly to her chest, her long hair falling all around him like a shield, leaving only his little feet visible to anyone who might happen upon the scene. She stood up and carried her son to the counter and helped him with his shoes. Placing a shoe on each foot, she spread out the laces and took his hands in hers.
“Alright gordo, you put your hands on top of mine and watch me tie these things,” Maria said to her son, looking right into his eyes. Gilbert, tucked his chin down to his chest and nodded his head in the affirmative, his eyes tilted way up to maintain contact with his mother.
“OK, here we go, “she said and they started the daily routine together. Maria had played the same learning game with her daughter, and it hadn’t taken long for her to master the shoe lacing skill. And both of the children loved the little song she sang whenever she practiced this skill with them.
“Lay down the left one, lay down the right
Roll them in the green grass, pull them really tight
Raise them up to heaven and make some loop de loops
Pull one through the center and knot it up real good
Finish up by cinching up the clump with all your might
Then run along and play away the day until the night”
Maria and Gilbert sang this song a couple of times before she finally set him down and watched him race out of the kitchen towards the living room. A second or two later she heard the familiar sound of “Bugs Bunny” coming from the television, and she sat down at the table for a minute to fix herself another cup of instant coffee.
“Myaaaah, what’s up Doc?” she heard Bugs say from the other room. She smiled when she heard her son giggle at what ever was going on in the story. She glanced up at the cow again, Victor was pretty late, and her stomach began to ache a little. Maria got up quickly and went to the kitchen door. She stuck her head outside and hollered over to the tool shed.
“Hey Jesus, hey Randy, do want some coffee?”
The two men waved to her, nodding an enthusiastic acceptance to her offer, anything to take a break from all this heat! She went to the cupboard to get a couple of cups and switched on the burner under the teakettle, she wanted to keep busy, to keep from thinking bad thoughts. It was 9:38, where was that man anyway?
“Hola Senora,” Jesus said knocking on the wooden screen door as he walked inside the house, Randy followed right behind him. They stamped there feet on the doormat before entering, politely cleaning off most of the dirt from their boots. Maria motioned them over to the kitchen table and set the cups out next to the jar of ‘Taster’s Choice’ and the sugar bowl.
“Thought you guys could use a break from the sun,” she said sweetly.
“Muchas gracias Senora,” Jesus said holding out his cup for Maria to fill with hot water.
“Yeah, thanks a bunch Mrs. Lopez,” said Randy as he ladled in a spoonful of instant coffee into his cup.
“It’s no trouble, were you two with Victor last night baling hay?”
“Si, I was,” Jesus said stirring his coffee and blowing on the cup before taking a sip.
“I thought he would be here when we drove up, but I didn’t see his truck.
“Yeah, he should have beat us here by a good half hour,” Randy added.
“Oh, he’ll be along, he probably just stopped at the market on the way home, and you know how much he likes to flirt with Louisa,” Maria said nonchalantly.
Louisa Sanchez was a seventy-eight year old woman, a five foot nothing ball of fire, with the spunk and energy of a woman not even half her age. Every man, who came into the bodega was her boyfriend, and she loved to sweet-talk them all. She had been at that market for as long as Maria could remember, and probably a good deal longer than that.
The thought of Victor standing in line, uncomfortably trying to check out while Louisa chattered away, stealing sideways glances at her husband’s tight jeans, almost made her laugh out loud. He always did his best to pose in modestly provocative and exaggerated positions to encourage her attention, entertaining himself and anyone else standing nearby. Maria smiled to herself as she pictured this little scene and silently prayed that this was exactly what was delaying his arrival. She sat down at the table with the two hired hands and chatted idly, sipping coffee and checking the clock, deciding to wait until 10:00 before officially panicking.
Tina watched as her teacher, Mr. Rawlings, wrote the problem on the blackboard. She was good at arithmetic, and she already knew the answer to the long division exercise he was composing.
“Alright, who would like to volunteer to work this for the class,” he asked without turning around, admiring his penmanship? The class was silent, nobody was raising their hand, and nobody ever did so he was not surprised. He waited the prescribed thirty seconds before ‘volunteering’ someone.
“Hector, would you please come to the blackboard and help me solve this problem?”
The boy tried to make himself disappear, but when he opened his eyes he was still in class and everyone but the teacher was looking right at him. Another prayer falling on deaf ears he thought, too young to realize that the education he was receiving was the real answer to his prayers.
“Yes sir,” he said, getting up and slowly trudging up the aisle to join his teacher at the front of the class, preparing himself for the inevitable humiliating experience.
He was poked at with pencils and rulers as he walked the gauntlet, a couple of paper planes and rockets bouncing off of him as he reached the end. Mr. Rawlings turned and handed him the chalk, placing a hand on his shoulder and guiding him to the board. He opened one eye and peeked at the board, then quickly opened the other eye, big and wide. HE KNEW THIS ANSWER, it was the same problem his dad had helped him with the night before! He almost tripped over his own feet in his rush to the blackboard. He turned around and faced the class, a sly grin breaking across his face. They weren’t going to get the show they were expecting this morning, no sir!
Before Mr. Rawlings could deliver his routine admonishment for failing to work hard enough on homework, Hector turned back around and started to work the problem. He imagined his teacher and classmates silently marveling at the speed at which he ciphered through the steps. Chalk dust filled the air, sparks flew from his fingertips. He paused a second for effect, then sprinted to the finish, tempted to autograph the board at the end of his showcase. He turned slowly to smugly look back at all the nay-sayers, and quickly noticed his teacher’s wrinkled brow. Instantly he knew the cause, and he spun quickly back to the board and wrote at the top of the problem ‘r 3’ he had forgotten to show the remainder, WHEW, that was a close one!
“I am surprised, pleasantly, pleasantly surprised,” Mr. Rawlings said rubbing his chin whiskers with his left hand. He walked up to the blackboard and stood next to Hector, and placed his hand onto the child’s shoulder.
“Well done Mr. Hernandez, well done,” Mr. Rawlings said to his pupil.
He held out his hand for Hector to return the chalk, and then circled the problem placing an asterisk or star above it to acknowledge the child’s success. Hector beamed as he returned to his desk, the pokes and taunts replaced by pats on the back and high fives. Being a kid was cool, one minute you’re the goat and the next the hero. There are no such things as grudges among children they all live in the moment. Too bad that concept dies in all of us somewhere between puberty and death. Tina turned in her seat and clapped her hands rapidly in front of her chest so that only Hector could see, letting her friend know that she was happy for him.
Still lost in the moment, he could only manage a shoulder shrug and silly grin in response. Mr. Rawlings had completed writing a new problem onto the board and was about to ask for the next volunteer when the door opened suddenly and a visitor walked into the room. It was the Principle, Mrs. Titus and she was accompanied by a police officer, more accurately, Sheriff Cardwell. They came to the front of the class and Mrs. Titus whispered something to Mr. Rawlings. The Sheriff looked around the class making everyone a little uncomfortable. He removed his sunglasses and smiled at the children, allowing them all to collectively draw another breath.
“Don’t worry kids, nobody’s going to jail today,” he teased, winking at the class.
“OK people, we’re going to break for recess a little early this morning, I’m sure that will not spoil the day for any of you,” Mr. Rawlings said with a smile.
“Leave your books open to page 44 and quietly walk to the playground with Mrs. Titus,” he continued. The room was filled with the sound of squeaking chairs as everyone slid from behind their desks at the same time. Obeying their teacher’s request they quietly and orderly followed the Principle out of the classroom through the door. As they filed by his desk in the front of the room, Mr. Rawlings reached out and touched Tina on the shoulder.
“Tina Lopez, would you please wait here for a minute, the Sheriff would like to ask you something,” he said smiling, trying too hard not to make her nervous?
Tina nodded and stood next to her teacher as the rest of her classmates filed by, too happy about escaping the arithmetic lesson to notice she had been kept behind. Only Hector looked back over his shoulder on the way out the door, but he was washed away with the throng of recess minded third graders. When the last child had exited the classroom, Mr. Rawlings walked over and closed the door. He returned to Tina and took her hand and walked her over to a seat in the first row. She sat down and folded her hands in front of her on the desktop and looked at the two men who were leaning against the teacher’s desk.
“Tina, I’m sorry about scaring all you kids like this, but I sort of need your help sweetheart,” Sheriff Cardwell said in a soft even tone.
She liked the Sheriff. He was a nice man she thought. She had met him shortly after she had helped Hector’s sister Rosa with her baby’s birth. She remembered the day she first saw him because he had driven to her house with Senora Donnelly in the back of his police car. She was afraid that maybe he had come to take away all the mommies, and she was scared for her own. But, as it turned out, Mrs. Donnelly was in the back seat because Sheriff Cardwell’s blue-eyed Husky “Daisy” was sleeping in the front seat. Tina loved that dog, and her family was given one of her puppies as a present at Christmas, much to the dismay of El Guappo, the cat. She had named the puppy “Dustin” because his tail was always wagging dusting whatever was trailing behind him. Senora Donnelly had told her family that the Sheriff would always be nearby if ever they needed him, he was there to make sure that Tina would always be safe.
And since then, whenever a stranger appeared at the house with a sad story or a need, you could be certain that a Deputy would be along soon afterward. It never occurred to Tina that they needed protection of that kind, but her mother was much happier with the attention, that was obvious. She no longer jumped when the phone or the doorbell rang. Tina continued to stare at the two men, waiting for one of them to speak, to tell her what this visit was all about, and to tell her why she wasn’t out playing in the sun with her friends.
“Listen honey, something happened this morning,” the Sheriff continued.
“Ah hell,” Sheriff Cardwell said curtly, walking away toward the door, one hand on his hip, his hat in the other. He slapped his hat against his leg and turned back to face the little girl.
“Look, Tina, Mr. and Mrs. Donnelly asked me to come get you because someone needs your help.”
“I say, let the bastard die, he deserves to die, but damn it, there are some extenuating circumstances that are difficult to explain.”
“All I know is that the Donnelly’s are good people and they must have a good reason to send for you baby girl,” Sheriff Cardwell finished.
Tina just stared at him, understanding nothing except the reference to the Donnelly’s. Her teacher started to ask say something, but the Sheriff waved him off and walked over to Tina, taking a knee in front of the desk she was sitting at.
“Listen, I have a Deputy going over to your house right now to pick up your Momma, and she will meet us at the hospital. But we need to get going because there really isn’t much time, at least I don’t think that there is,” the Sheriff said, his eyebrows raising while he thought about that for a moment.
Tina nodded and scooted out from behind the desk, taking the Sheriff’s hand. They walked toward the door hand in hand, Sheriff Cardwell placing his cap back on his head. He took the sunglasses out of his pocket and placed them over his eyes as they walked out of the building and into the bright morning sun. He opened the passenger door of the car and helped the little girl inside, making sure to adjust the seatbelt to fit her small frame. Hopping into the driver’s side of the patrol car he drove off with the lights flashing but no siren. Hector watched the car race away from behind the chain-link fence, wondering what was going on?
Maria picked up the cups and put them in the sink, she turned on the water and rinsed them out, placing them on the drying rack on the counter. It was well past 10:00 and she was in an official panic now. She had asked Jesus and Randy to drive around and see if they could find Victor. She had almost shoved them out the door, shouting for them to get going and to call as soon as they found him. She tried to block all of the awful thoughts going through her mind, deciding instead to concentrate on how she would kill him herself if he weren’t already dead!
“Darn you Panson, there are telephones on every street corner, and I know you have an ashtray full of coins because you don’t smoke,” she cried out loud to herself. Gilbert walked into the kitchen and stood next to his mother, looking up at her, trying to decide if he should start crying as well. She took her hand away from her eyes and picked up her son, hugging him tightly and swaying her body from side to side as if they were dancing. The doorbell suddenly rang and Maria swung Gilbert onto her hip and carried him quickly into the front room. She could see Deputy Grady at the door through the screen. He removed his sunglasses and his hat as she approached the door.
“Excuse me Mrs. Lopez, the Sheriff asked me to stop by,” he said a little too nervously for her comfort.
“WHAT, what is it, where is my husband, what do you know,” she said rapidly and excitedly, her eyes moist and pleading. Her tone had startled her son and he started to cry, with that face kids make when they are more confused and scared than hurt or angry.
“Shhh, shhhhh, mijo, lo ciento baby, lo ciento,” she said trying to quiet her son and steady her nerves at the same time. She looked back at Deputy Grady from over her son’s little shoulder and waited for him to answer her. He just stood there, not exactly sure what to say next, he really didn’t know too much, and didn’t want that to show, typical rookie behavior.
“Oh, right, I’m sorry ma'am, yeah, well the Sheriff asked me to stop by and fetch you over to the ER at the County Trauma Center,” he stammered, embarrassed that this little woman was intimidating him more than she should be able to. Deputy Grady leaned closer to the screen as Maria ran back into the house, disappearing from his view.
“Mrs. Lopez, ma'am, we need to get a move on,” he said, reaching for the door handle to follow after her. Before he could turn the knob, Maria came crashing through the door, knocking him back a couple of steps. She was half way to his patrol car by the time he recovered enough to chase after her. She stopped in the middle of the lawn, fixing Gilberts baseball cap onto his head to shield his eyes from the sun.
“Let’s GO Grady, lets go, Victor is probably bleeding on some table somewhere, lets GO!”
The Deputy opened the car door and then closed it behind them as soon as she was seated. He ran around to his side and hopped in, turning the engine over and fastening his seatbelt simultaneously. He fumbled with his sunglasses and Maria swatted him on his arm, “Come ON Grady, step on it, where is the ‘thingy’ that turns on the lights and siren anyway,” she said anxiously.
“Take it easy will ya, we don’t even know what the emergency is anyway!”
“Well, use your talkie walkie, short wave telephone in a car, or whatever you call this thing in the middle here and find out!” Maria stamped both her feet on the floorboards and leaned back hard against the seat, “Ohhhhh, will you just hurry please!” Gilbert peeked out from behind his mother’s hair and looked over at the frustrated deputy. He reached out with his little hand and offered the poor man a cookie. Deputy Grady looked over and let a smile replace his frown for a millisecond then reached over, taking the cookie, and winked at the child.
“Thanks, I need this.” Maria turned her head to see what was going on.
“Oh for goodness sake, I only have patience for one baby this morning, OK?”
“We’re on our way now, don’t worry,” he said as he picked up the radio mike and called into dispatch to report his status.
“One Charlie Seven to dispatch, I picked up the Lopez woman, she has a small boy with her, and we’re in route to County Trauma, ETA ten minutes, over.”
“One Charlie Seven, acknowledged. Meet One David One on tack one, copy.”
“Roger that ten-four.”
“What did all of that mean?” Maria asked.
“It means that we will arrive at the hospital in about ten minutes,” Deputy Grady said.
“What about my husband, what did you find out?”
“Hold your horses will ya! I’ve got to contact the Sheriff, maybe he can help you with that one,” Grady quipped tiredly. Maria said nothing and just stared out the window, fighting the urge to chew on her thumbnail. Grady switched the dial on his radio and put the mike to his mouth.
“One David One, One David One, One Charlie Seven, over.”
The radio squawked at him a second or two and then Sheriff Cardwell’s voice came over the wireless.
“One Charlie Seven, what’s your twenty son, over.”
“I'm on Avenue C crossing 10th St. ETA seven minutes, over.’
“Ask him, ask him,” Maria pleaded.
“One David One, Sheriff, Mrs. Lopez is concerned about this call, do you have information about the whereabouts of her husband Victor, over?”
“One David One, kinda dicey out here right now Grady, tell Mrs. Lopez that I’ll bring her up to date when you arrive. Oh, and let her know that her daughter is here as well, that she is just fine, over and out.”
“One Charlie Seven Roger that boss, over and out.”
“Sorry Mrs. Lopez, you’ll just have to wait a few minutes.”
Maria didn’t answer, she was already praying. When she heard that Tina was with the Sheriff her worst fears were confirmed. She knew that Victor had been in a terrible accident and that he was either dying or dead already. Why else would the Sheriff have picked up her daughter and sent for her as well, why else would they be racing to the hospital. She sat in silence the rest of the trip, time seemingly standing still. She was no longer interested in arriving so quickly. Maria could feel her faith waning, and she tried to fight it, to cling to hope against hope that the Lord would be merciful. But the darker side was winning and she was falling into a depression that was cold and bleak.
Just as she was about to surrender, to abandon all of the blessings that she had come to know and to love, Gilbert dropped a cookie down her blouse and he went fishing for it. She watched passively as his little arm disappeared inside her shirt, searching for his lost treat. She turned her head, catching Deputy Grady looking at her strangely and snapped out of her trance. She pulled her son’s arm out of her shirt, cookie in hand, and quickly buttoned up her blouse, snapping Deputy Grady out of his trance. He cleared his throat and smiled weakly. She smiled back and shook her head. “Pigs,” she thought. Men were all the same, if breasts had any more power women would rule the world.
“We’re here,” Grady said coming to an abrupt stop at the entrance to the Emergency Room.
There were several patrol cars around as well as an ambulance, a fire truck, and some news vans. Whatever was going on, it looked like it might make the six o’clock news, there were trucks from channels four, two and seven that she could see. Grady opened her door and she and Gilbert got out of the car. A small crowd of people standing around the entrance turned quickly, and leveled their attention on Maria and her son. Grady put his arm around her and the baby and shielded them from the microphones and cameras as they made their way to the automatic doors.
“Officer, Officer, what can you tell us, who is this woman, is she the one, is she the one,” a short red-headed newswoman demanded rudely, standing way inside of his comfort zone.
Grady ignored everything and everyone as he bullied his way toward the door and finally into the ER. Once inside the mood became much quieter, almost too quiet given the level of commotion just outside those two doors. Maria looked around for someone or something familiar. At first there was nothing, and then over by yet another set of doors, laid across a chair, was Victor’s Levi’s Jacket, the same one he had worn to the alfalfa fields last night. She remembered he had it with him because she had to fight with him to take it, he didn’t like wearing jackets or heavy coats.
She froze when she noticed that it was covered in blood, the entire white wool collar was soaked in thickening red blood. She had not seen that much blood since Rosa Hernandez had given birth on her kitchen floor. Maria walked over to the chair and looked down at the bloody coat, her eyes beginning to moisten again. She tried to hold her composure, she hadn’t actually seen Victor yet, and nobody had said anything. Someone came up behind her and put an arm on her shoulder lightly.
“Maria, you need to come with me child,” said Alma Donnelly softly. She gently turned Maria around and hugged her and Gilbert, softly brushing Maria’s hair with her hand.
“Maria, MARIA! Look at me, let me know that you are hearing my words.” Maria looked at Alma and nodded, more confused than scared at the moment. She was prepared for the worst, and just wanted someone to get on with it.
“Yes,” she said weakly.
“OK now, we’re going to go into this room over here, and someone will explain all of this to you, do you understand me?”
The three of them walked to a second set of automatic doors and Deputy Grady pushed the large button on the wall, causing the doors to slide open. The sign over the door read “Burn Unit” and Maria could feel hers knees get weak, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to walk any further. This was not one of the possibilities that she had prepared herself for. She could feel Alma rubbing her shoulders as they walked slowly down the hall, busy people in green clothes looking at them as they passed avoiding any eye contact. She felt as though she had to pee all of the sudden, but that passed quickly and was replaced with an urge to vomit.
A tall man in long white lab coat stopped in front of them and said something to Alma, she could hear the sound of their voices, but the words did not register. The tall man smiled at her and then gestured to another set of doors, pushing a button to open them magically. She looked inside and saw Sheriff Cardwell standing at an intersection, his back to them his arms folded in front of him. He turned at the sound of the opening doors and smiled at Alma and Maria. He walked over to them and placed his hands onto Maria’s shoulders and tussled Gilbert's hair a little.
“I’m sorry for the rush and all the drama, but we had ourselves a situation here that sorta got out of hand quickly.”
“Victor, where is Victor, I, I saw his jacket in the hall, there was so much blood,” she whispered, not really looking at him.
“Come with me Maria, I’ll explain everything,” he said gently.
He turned and led them down the hall towards the same intersection that he was standing in only a moment ago. As they passed a room on the right, Maria looked over and stopped. Inside the room was Rosa Hernandez, she was sitting on a bed, handcuffed to the rail, a female Deputy standing nearby. Maria turned toward the room and stared inside until Rosa made eye contact. She had been crying, but smiled when she saw Maria, giving her a little wave with her other hand.
“Come on, I’ll tell you about that as well,” Sheriff Cardwell whispered.
They continued on and turned left at the intersection and Maria stopped again. She gasped, her eyes filling with tears as she handed Gilbert to Alma. She ran to the end of the hall as fast as she could and leaped into her husband’s arms, nearly knocking him down. She kissed him over and over, his face, his hands, his face again, and then threw her arms around his neck, clutching at his shirt, her hands closing with so much pressure that she nearly tore through the fabric.
“Where have you been,” she whispered, her face buried in the nape of his neck, breathing deeply and drinking in his pheromones.
“Where have you been Panson, I was so worried, I thought you were dead!”
“I’m sorry Honey, this all happened so fast, there was nothing I could do,” Victor said softly, stroking his wife’s long, beautiful hair. She sighed, and then looked up at him suddenly frightened again.
“Where is Tina, Grady said that Tina was here?”
“She’s fine Maria, she’s fine. She’s just been called to serve again. But honestly, I really wonder what the man upstairs was thinking where this one is concerned?”
“What are you talking about Victor, what do you mean, why is everyone acting so strange, why are all the TV people outside?” Sheriff Cardwell walked up to the couple and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Maria, you saw the Hernandez girl in the other room?”
“There was an incident this morning that involved her”
“She went to the free clinic over on Clemons Street, near Avenue F, and walked right like she owned the place,” Sheriff Cardwell paused and swallowed before he continued.
“She had a bottle of pop in her hand, or so the receptionist thought. She went right into the office where a Doctor Katz was working at his desk. The receptionist said that she heard them argue, and then it was quiet for a minute or two. Then all of a sudden the Doctor screamed for her to get out, and the door opened and Rosa started to exit. She stopped suddenly and looked right at the girl at the front desk, then told her that she was going to save her a lot of suffering. The receptionist peeked around her and saw that Dr. Katz was standing with his arms out as if he had just been hit with a water balloon, dripping wet with something that smelled familiar. Before it registered in her mind that what she smelled was gasoline, Rosa tossed a lit match into the room, and the place exploded in flames. By the time we arrived, the doctor was out on the wet grass, his clothes and hair still smoking from the fire. Apparently the paramedics were still in route when your husband drove by and saw the poor man run from the building, fully engulfed in flames. He pulled over and tackled him on the grass while the receptionist turned the garden hose on both of them. Rosa just sat on the steps and watched, rocking back and forth in a trance, saying over and over ‘that’s it for you.’
Nobody knew what she was talking about. We didn’t get the whole story until we got her in that room over there and she told us about the rape. In the last couple of hours there have been eight other girls that have come forward and testified to being raped by this doctor as well. If these accusations are true, then this guy may have gotten just what he deserved. Oh, I know, I shouldn’t say that out loud, I mean I am the Sheriff, but damn it, some of those girls are Tina’s age!” Maria looked back at her husband and asked him.
“Where is Tina now?” Victor started to speak when the Sheriff cut in again.
“Maria, your husband rode with that man to the hospital, and prayed with him while he lay dying.”
“He confessed to all of these charges in the ambulance and asked for forgiveness, he was delirious, he thought Victor was a priest.” Victor spoke up, “I didn’t know what to do Maria, but I felt that the Lord wanted me to do something, why else would he send me near that place, at exactly that moment, it’s not on the way home?”
“And you thought of Tina?” Victor looked down at his boots, “Yes, God help me, I thought about our daughter, you said yourself that there was no one that we could turn away.’
“Aiye Victor, this man is evil. He might have taken Tina as well, sooner or later!”
“Who are we to judge Maria, he was a man, he was suffering, we had the means to end his suffering, to offer hope?”
“Where is she Victor,” she asked again.
“In there,” Victor pointed to a room across the aisle.
There were two Deputies standing out front and she could see the shape of someone moving behind the frosted glass. She pushed away from her husband and walked past the Sheriff. When she got to the door a large Deputy extended his beefy arm to block her way. Sheriff Cardwell signaled the Deputy to let her in and he turned and opened the heavy wooden door. When she walked in she saw that the screen around the bed was pulled shut and she walked over to it. A nurse had just exited carrying two rolls of gauze and some adhesive tape. She stopped and looked at Maria.
“May I help you,” she asked? Maria didn’t answer her.
“Excuse me, I don’t think you should be in here,” she said and looked toward the door at the Deputy standing watch.
He motioned for her to come over to him and pointed toward the Sheriff and she left the room. Maria reached out and slid the curtain open, preparing herself for a hideous site. But when she opened her eyes and looked inside what she saw startled her. The man in the bed was sitting up right, his wrists and ankles shackled to the bed-frame, and his face was wet with tears. But there weren’t any signs that this man had been set afire, there were no burns or blisters, no bandages, no drying bloodstains like the ones all over Victor’s jacket. He looked absolutely normal, except he was silently sobbing looking down at the small girl at the foot of his bed.
Her head was on the blanket her little hands held onto the man’s left foot, she was sleeping peacefully, her soft breathing interrupted only by the rhythmic beeps of the heart monitor that was attached to the patient. Maria looked back at the man, this doctor, and this abuser of little girls and women. She really wanted to hate to hate him, she wanted to lash out on the behalf of those girls, she wanted to protect those he hurt, to protect those he might yet hurt, but she couldn’t. She was standing in a holy place, a place where the Lord was working for his children through his children. She walked over to the man and looked deeply into his eyes, they were raw and red. They stared at one another for a full minute, and then she reached over to him and wiped away a tear.
“I’m sorry,” he said weakly.
“I know,” she replied “I know.”
Maria turned and walked over to her daughter and stroked her hair, the pink headband was pushed up with the angle of her head. Maria pulled it off of her and then leaned over to whisper in her ear.
“Wake up mijita, let’s go home.” Tina stirred a little, yawned and stretched.
She looked back at her mother than over to the man and got up. Taking her mother’s hand they turned to walk away. As they started to leave, Tina stopped next to the bed and looked at the hand shackled to the rail. She reached over and took hold of one of his fingers and then looked up into his eyes. She held his gaze for a moment and then let go of his finger, she smiled and waved to him. Doctor Murray Katz felt the pressure in his chest and he leaned his head back against the pillow.
He closed his eyes tightly but the heart attack he was expecting did not come. What came instead was a feeling he didn’t recognize, one he had never experienced, a feeling that up till now he never believed in, for the first time in his life he felt love and the awesome power behind it. He listened as the door closed and locked behind his visitor and savior. The man he had been was dead, the man he would be, began his new life with two new words, repentance and forgiveness.
Victor huddled with his family near the nurse’s station in the trauma center’s burn unit. He watched the people going about their business, and noticed that they were trying too hard not to notice them. He could hear the noise outside the burn unit, every time someone came in or went out. He knew that things were going to be different now. They were not going to be able to hide in plain sight any longer.
He looked over at Alma Donnelly. She was talking with Sheriff Cardwell and her husband Arthur. They glanced his way periodically and smiled reassuringly. He knew that they were talking about them, trying to figure out a way that this could all go away. But this was too much, this was catnip to all the media lurking outside waiting for a chance to tempt them with the promise of riches, in order to exploit this phenomenon whatever way they could. No, he wouldn’t let them do that, he would take his family and run again, find somewhere to start again, perhaps the Donnelly’s could help, and he prayed that they would find a way.
He looked down at his family. They were all stretched out on the small uncomfortable sofa. Gilbert resting his head on Tina’s lap, Tina resting her head on Maria’s lap and Maria sound asleep on his shoulder. There was no shoulder for Victor to rest on, but he was in good hands, and he continued to pray for deliverance from this situation. He remembered what his mother had taught him as a boy, follow your heart son, and keep your faith strong. Everyone and everything that comes into your life is part of God’s plan for you, pay attention to the signs and listen to the spirit that guides you.
Your mind may be your most powerful tool, keep it sharp, but it’s your heart that has dominion over you, and can keep you from hurting yourself and others with that powerfully, sharp mind. Pretty smart for someone who never finished school he thought. He thought about his mother for a moment and pictured her smiling face. He decided that the true measure of a person’s life was the way in which they would be remembered by those who loved them, and by those who did not.
Victor yawned and looked at his watch, it was 12:45, past his normal lunchtime, and he was starving, he had already missed one meal today. As soon as the dust settled on this he was taking them all to A&W for a burgers and root beer, he could picture that frosty mug and began to salivate. He kissed his wife on the top of her head and leaned his head back against the wall. He hoped he had done the right thing today, it felt like the right thing, time would tell.