I just get to work at 4 in the afternoon and I’m sent downtown to wait for a lawyer to lead somebody to my cab from the courthouse across the street from the old art deco Fremont Theater. I park in front of the Fremont. There’s activity here: lawyers in double-breasted suits carrying brief cases and talking on cell phones; secretaries in fetching outfits talking on cell phones; a flow going in and out of the coffee house beside the Fremont and the Italian eatery and rib joint on the corner—San Luis Obispo’s beehive.
I keep my eyes on the city hall building. I wait 5 minutes. I do not like to wait. I do not like lawyers. I get out and pace, malevolently eyeing the bee hive. Finally, a short fire-plug of a man, around 35, who fills out a beautiful suit like a weightlifter, scampers across Monterey Street from the courthouse and signals me. We meet on the sidewalk beside my cab.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he says right off, taking in my sneakers, thrift store shorts and faded Harvard Business School T-shirt. He offers a hand, introducing himself as Larry. “It’s just that I have a hysterical client. Somebody tried to rape her in Los Osos. She was at the police station. I’m her family lawyer. She’s still in the courthouse. Be patient, please. I’ll take good care of you.”
Please be kind to this lady, ey? She’s been through hell. Right now the police are trying to find the bastard who attacked her. She’s in a lot of distress. She’s very fragile.
I say okay and he hustles back across the street, obviously a one-time high school football fullback. I’ll usually run the meter when I have to wait for somebody, demanding the fare pay for my time, but I’m not going to press a rape victim. Five minutes later he leads her across the street, an attractive but ragged-looking thirty-something woman with long mussed honey-colored hair, dressed in work shorts, and a man’s baggy T-shirt.
The lawyer introduces her to me as Gail. She is still in an extreme state of agitation and perhaps shock and does not look at me as the lawyer helps her into the shotgun seat and continues counseling her. I wait for him on the sidewalk. When he is finished comforting the woman, he hands me his card.
“I don’t have any cash on me right now. Can you come to my office up the street when you get back to town?” Los Osos is 12 miles away.
“Well, we’re not supposed to go out of town without collecting first. And I don’t like coming across town when I can be at the airport. But I also don’t like conducting myself like an asshole, so I guess I have to trust you. If I can’t, maybe I can hire you to sue yourself.”
He chuckles, but he’s not quite sure of me. Still, he says, “I can go down the street to the ATM if you want.”
“Nah, I’ve decided you’re a good lawyer, a very extinct breed.”
“Thanks, pal. Please be kind to this lady, ey? She’s been through hell. Right now the police are trying to find the bastard who attacked her. She’s in a lot of distress. She’s very fragile.”
“I’ll take good care of her. That’s a promise.”
“Thanks.” We shake hands. I get back in the cab. I plow through the beginning of rush-hour traffic, headed for the highway leading to Los Osos. I decide not to initiate conversation with the sniffling figure beside me, who is curled into the side of the door, as if trying to make herself smaller. I fiddle with the radio, find NPR. Once on the highway, we ooze into a 50 mph flow of traffic. I glance at her, offer a reassuring smile, as if saying: “I know it’s tough, but you’ll live through it.”
“Thanks for taking me home,” she says in a wee voice. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without my lawyer. He’s such a great guy.”
“I liked him right off.” She sits up a trifle. “So, you live in Los Osos…you like it?”
“Well, I do…I mean, I’ve lived there a while. I guess I like it, but after today, I don’t know.”
“You look familiar. I used to tend bar at Happy Jack’s in Morro Bay. You ever in there?”
“Uh-huh. I used to go there to dance before I met my husband. I don’t go to bars anymore. My husband doesn’t like them.”
“That’s probably where I saw you.”
She sits up a little and replaces her handkerchief in her purse. “Somebody tried to rape me,” she says. “I was out in the back yard tending to my gardens. I have a really nice yard and garden. I grow tomatoes and peppers and we have an avocado tree and a lemon tree. I love working in the yard. My husband really likes the way I keep things so beautiful and tidy. I was watering my plants, and out of nowhere this guy jumped the fence and threw me down and put his hand over my mouth and tried to rape me! He slapped me and punched me and said he’d kill me if I screamed. Oh God…”
“What did you do?”
Her voice cracks with a slight sob. “I fought him. I fought for my life. I kicked him. I bit him. I scratched his face. I fought and fought. He ripped my clothes off. I punched and scratched at him and I screamed…I didn’t care if he killed me. There was nobody around, everybody at work. I was crying so hard, and fighting so hard, and screaming so loud, he just took off.”
I glance at the scratches and bruises on her face and the discoloring from bruises on her arms and legs. She starts to cry again, quietly, holding her face.
“Go ahead and cry,” I tell her. “It’s good for you. You need to cry it out.”
We are cutting through the bucolic serenity of green farm and ranch land with shadowed foothills on either side, homes and barns nestled into crevices under trees.
“I’m so worried about my husband.” She sobs louder, looking out the window away from me.
“What if he doesn’t believe me?” She’s looking at me, near hysterical.
“What do you mean—doesn’t believe you? There’s a police report, right? You went to the hospital. Look at your bruises and scratches.”
“I know, but maybe he’ll think, well, that I…invited it.”
“Why would he think that?”
“I don’t know. He might, though, think I ASKED for it.”
“No way. What kind of man is he?”
“He’s real macho. He’s a contractor. I’m just so ashamed, so worried he won’t believe me.”
“Look, what you do is you don’t try and convince him of anything. You direct him straight to your lawyer and the police.”
“He’s already talked to my lawyer by phone.”
“Have you talked to your husband?”
She nods, sniffles. “On the phone. I don’t think he believes me. I don’t know what to do.”
I was watering my plants, and out of nowhere this guy jumped the fence and threw me down and put his hand over my mouth.
We approach Los Osos, a swale adjoining Morro Bay Estuary. Big generic shopping center on our right. No main drag. A notoriously scrumptious bakery emitting hellacious aromas every morning to counter the miasma of a thousand septic tanks and sumps. At one time Los Osos was a low-rent encampment of biker types and plenty of meth, but since real estate went crazy in the ‘90s it’s become somewhat gentrified, with a scattering of holdouts intimidating Cal Poly professors and suburban retirees tooling its rutted curb-less side-streets and driving to San Luis Obispo for trendy shops, Trader Joe’s and Costco.
“What you need is a drink,” I say.
“Yes, I think so. I’m not much of a drinker these days.”
“Just get a half pint, enough to take off the edge, and relax you a little. What do you usually drink when you do drink?”
“Bourbon, I guess.”
“What do you like to mix with it?”
“Seven-Up, or Coke.”
“Okay, we’ll find a liquor store. You get a half pint of bourbon and a Seven-Up. Go into your living room, lock up the house, turn on the TV, and have a quiet drink or two, and wait for your husband.”
“If he doesn’t believe me I don’t know what I’ll do,” she wails.
“If he doesn’t believe you, leave him,” I say. “I know it’s none of my business, but how the hell can you have a relationship if your husband doesn’t trust you and he’s not even here after what you’ve been through?”
“I’m so screwed up,” she admits, as we pull into a liquor store parking lot. She sniffles. “I just wanna die.”
“Listen,” I say. “You’ve just been through a traumatic ordeal and you’re not thinking clearly. You’ve been violated and humiliated and made to feel dirty…by some animal, a criminal. It is NOT your fault. Don’t let this incident rob you of your self-worth. You fought for your life, and you’re here, and you won. It took a lot of guts to fight that guy off. You’re a victim. Your husband will understand. Now go in there and get yourself a bottle to calm your nerves and don’t worry about your husband. Everything’ll be okay. I’m positive.”
Still shaky, she enters the liquor store. A few minutes later she returns with a package. I drive through neighborhoods to her modest house. The front yard is tidy with rows of flowers in full bloom and hedges edged sharp as razors.
“I wish I had money to tip you,” she says.
”You owe me nothing. Go on in there and relax. You didn’t invite this. You’re a nice gal. Have faith in yourself. It’s been a bad, nasty day, and things’ll be rough for a week or two, but then you’ll be thankful to be alive and have good days. Hang in there. Good luck. Now go in there, and make your first drink the biggest one.”
She starts to leave. “Look at my yard…isn’t it beautiful?”
“Very much so.”
She looks at me, her red-rimmed eyes well up and register utter despair, almost terror. “I won’t be able to go out there anymore! My back yard, it’s my favorite place in all the world…and I’m afraid to go out there now!”
“Listen, that was a one-shot deal. He’ll never come back. All this will pass.”
She faces me, trembling, leans toward me, ever so slightly, and I take both her hands in mine, give them a little squeeze. Her shapely knees are grass-stained and scratched raw. “Hang tough, kid—sometimes that’s all we can do. It’s not the end of the world. That’s what my mother always tells me, and it’s true.”
I let go of her hands. She gets out of the cab and opens the gate of the short, white picket fence and walks past a cat and up to the porch and front door, opens it, shivers, turns and waves at me, then disappears into the house, the cat right behind her. The door slams shut.
When I get back into town I pull up to her lawyer’s office and get out of my cab. I hear somebody shout, turn to look out onto Marsh Street and see the lawyer, who is encased in a white baggy outfit of the kind of plastic material a vermin exterminator or astronaut might wear. He is heading toward me on a skateboard, sneakers having replaced his Oxfords, his knotted tie the only trace of his former attire. He pulls up to me in a sideway skid and grins. He hands me three twenties for a $36 fare and tells me to keep the change.
“This is therapy, man,” he explains. “How’d it go?”
“I got her to do some talking. She’s still in a panicky state.”
He nods. “Thanks for your trouble. I appreciate it.”
“Well, I hope she’ll be okay.”
He shrugs, rolling his eyes in a helpless manner. “We do the best we can, man.” Then he smiles and we shake hands and he zooms off on his skateboard, expertly gauging traffic on the street, like a teenager. §
Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he lives with his rescue dog, Wilbur, a very needy chocolate lab. He writes of his years as a cabbie, bartender and athelte on his website, dellfranklin.com.