There was an elderly woman from Guatemala or Panama or one of those Mexican countries down there working at the In-n-Out Burger where I was employed in Napa when I was 22. Her name was Berta, or Marta, or something stereotypical like that, and I came upon her in the back room one day, clutching the potato tumbler with one hand for support, and her heart with the other for dramatic effect, her Charo mascara running down her wrinkly Hispanic jowls and coming to rest in blue-black spatters among the red ones already on her shirt from slicing the day's tomatoes (one of the few chores that could be entrusted to someone who didn't speak English, while also demeaning enough that no one who did speak English would do it, which is precisely why we had Berta, or Marta, in the first place). She looked at me as I approached, and sobbed hysterically, "¡No es ataque de corazón!" or, "It's not a heart attack!" I figured she lied to get this job; she was probably lying about this.
Don't get me wrong. Marta or whatever was like a mother to me. Not my mother, but she just seemed like someone's mother, to me. And we were pretty close. This was largely because I was the only other Spanish speaker who worked there, so they always made me be the one to tell her what needed cleaning or cutting. I had made her this tape to help her learn, in English and Spanish, the answers to the questions on the United States citizenship test, so whenever she was cleaning out the sinks, you'd hear her going "Francees Eh-scoatt Key," or she'd be sweeping behind the dumpster, from whence a voice would emanate: "Dee right to bear arms." I thought it was important that this woman be able to vote on crucial political issues, you know? So now you see how very close we were, Marta or Berta and I. And then one day she up and had an ataque, and I had to be the one to find her.
So I told my boss, and he called an ambulance, and they came to take her away. As they strapped her to the gurney, she called out, her eyes wide and wet with gratitude, "¡No doctores, no doctores!" which, as you can gather from the context, is some strange dialect of Spanish for "You can find my insurance card in the wallet in my left hip pocket!" In all honesty, the arrival of the paramedics had somehow exacerbated her panic, and as they loaded her up into the back of the ambulance, she yelled something that sounded uncannily like the English phrase "Geeve me leeberty or geeve me deeeeeeath!" That's the last thing she said, and then the heavy ambulance doors clanged shut, and I never saw that poor woman again.
Okay, it's true that I never saw her again, but that's not really what she yelled. What she actually yelled was the Spanish phrase, "No me dejes sola," which means "Don't leave me alone." And she said it, yelped it, almost pleaded it, while looking right into my eyes, and the ambulance doors really did clang shut unsympathetically right at that moment, and I was left with her final words to me resounding in my ears. The paramedics told me I couldn't ride in the ambulance because I wasn't related to her, but they were kind enough to tell me which hospital they were taking her to, and then they left.
My boss asked what she had yelled there at the end, and I told him. "Well, why don't you follow her down there and make sure she's all right?" he suggested.
"I don't have a car." It would take over an hour to get to the hospital on the bus.
"Here, take mine," he offered, tossing his keys to me.
I tried to catch them, but yeah. I'd always been terrible at that, ever since tee-ball. But not catching the keys was less embarrassing than what I was saying as I was swatting at the air for them: "I don't know how to drive." Once I'd recovered the keys, I walked over to hand them to my boss (throwing was my other weak point), but he was still reacting to what I'd said, staring at me as though I had just told him, during the McCarthy era, that I was a Communist. A look that was half "I hope you're kidding," and half "This is a terrible time to be kidding." But I wasn't kidding. I had no idea how to drive a car. Well, not NO idea. I had watched Knight Rider religiously as a child, and I had even had a Knight Rider Big Wheel, so I knew there was something about turning a key, and then the car would talk to you and tell you what to do next, but that was as far as my knowledge went.
When my boss composed himself, he simply muttered, "Well, then, get back to work." And I did. As I slammed potatoes through the french fry cutter (the "freedom" fry cutter, as I guess we were supposed to call it in those post-9/11 days, presumably so we didn't have to keep paying evil terrorist-supporting France the royalties for inventing the name of the way we cut our potatoes here in America), I thought about Marta in her paper hat on a paper sheet on a hospital bed, refusing to sign scary paperwork in a crazy foreign medical building where no one spoke her language. Why had she panicked so much at the thought of going to the hospital, I wondered? I decided to think that the only reason the old woman had been so scared was that maybe she'd only been to hospitals in a third world country, and once she arrived at our nice clean American hospital, she'd calm right down. The thought also crossed my mind that maybe she thought they would actually send her to one of those hospitals back in her homeland once they realized she was illegal, and then I realized I wasn't entirely sure that that they don't actually do that, so I decided not to think about it.
Just so you know, the woman didn't die. She was given orders from the doctor to not return to work for at least a few months, and by the time she came back, I had moved to Utah. But I was changed in one way of major importance. I had decided that maybe it was time to get my driver license, just in case of emergency. No more old Mexican ladies dying alone because THIS guy didn't know how to follow an ambulance. But me, Robbie, getting a license? I figure I could have done the normal thing and taken Drivers' Ed and actually learned how to drive, like everyone else. But yeah right. At some point in the next few weeks, I was informed that driving was actually nothing like The Love Bug or Knight Rider at all. Plus, I wasn't really so interested in learning how to drive as I was in just getting my license. A driver license, as I understand it, is like a free pass from the government to be behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. If I ever got pulled over for crashing off the side of the road, I'd be able to simply show my license, and the cops would just help me flip my car back over and wave me on my merry way. Still, as appealing as this license was starting to seem, I was keenly aware that it was The Man who was making me get my license. And I was never one to drive through hoops. So, instead of signing up for driving classes, I hatched a scheme.
To be continued....