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You can never pay back what you owe to all the people who care for you--you have to pay it foward.
A Soul Survivor Tale
My So-Called Life -- and Death
High school is a crock.
I'd done all the important stuff, played varsity football, ran for class president, made the dean's list, dated the popular girls. But when it was over, it was over. Six months after getting out of high school, I had no idea if I were going to flunk out of college or just drop out and live under a bridge.
I'd turned down athletic scholarships to second-tier colleges in order to go to the school I wanted to attend, UCLA. It had a good reputation, not too far from home,; and L.A., I figured, has a lot more to do than some small town in Arkansas.
Sure. My loans and grants and a small scholarship took care of tuition, books, housing and meals in the dorm cafeteria. Anything else I wanted, I had to work for -- no way could my parents pay for it with two other kids to put through college and my grandparents' health failing. I just wasn't going to ask.
So, that's why I had the night shift at Fabian's Deli that Thursday night. I had had the crazy idea that an all night deli would be lax, a quiet gig where I could study. But no-o-o! Graveyard shifts are for cleaning and stocking -- four nights a week while carrying a full load had worn me down to a pale shadow of my former self.
That's a joke, 'cause I was still pretty dark. Black hair, dark eyes, brown skin -- hey, with a name like Raul Cisneros, I come by it honest. And another gripe about the deli; my nametag had my first name on it and combined with my decidedly Latino appearance, a huge number of people thought it necessary to speak Spanish to me. My mom's maiden name was Domingues, her grandparents spoke Portuguese when they landed in New Hampshire, okay? And my dad, he speaks Spanish only when visiting Mexico, it's a rule with him.
My Spanish is pretty bad. Oh, I can understand it, usually, but I don't speak it worth a damn. Conjugations make me tense.
So, Thursday night. The last Thursday of my so-called life, I had already cleaned the sandwich board and the sink, the coffee maker and the popcorn machine. Next job, straighten shelves and restock the gondolas. When the traffic died completely after three a.m., I would restock the cooler and mop the floor.
Almost two in the morning, Friday really, I only had one customer, Raggedy Rumbo. We called him Rumbo 'cause he looked a little like Stallone, if Stallone ever played a black street bum, but we never saw him sober. Rumbo, I mean, I don't know about Stallone. Three or four nights a week, Rumbo came in just before I locked up the wine and beer, trying to buy a bottle of Night Train or some such, usually without enough money. He stank so I kept my distance.
This night, Rumbo came from the wine cool case, walking with drunken caution between the stands of adult magazines with titles like: Hot Bush and Boobtastic. ""Amush dis boll uh Nychain?" he asked. I didn't have to decipher that, he always asked the same thing and he had the bottle in his hand.
"Two ninety five, plus tax, three nineteen, Rumbo," I said, waving a hand in front of my face to get the fumes out of my nose.
"I got two sendy-ny," he said looking as if that were a tragedy worthy of a spot on the six o'clock news. His rummy eyes filled with tears. He had a grimy dollar bill wrapped around a loose collection of change which he dumped on the counter.
I didn't even check, Rumbo always knew how much money he had, he just couldn't remember the price of anything. "Not enough," I said, hardening my heart to a round of begging. I got behind the counter to put some distance between us and pushed the filthy lucre back toward him.
"Ain' I yo' fren?" he asked, staring at the money but not touching it.
"What's my name?" I countered.
He frowned and tried to squint at my name badge. "Paul," he announced. He waved the bottle in pride, just before it exploded and showered us both with broken glass and cheap, fortified wine. I didn't hear the gunshot until after the bottle broke.
A blocky white guy wearing a stocking on his head stood at the door. His body language gave away his fear, confusion and indecision. He looked at the gun in his hand as if he'd never seen it before.
I ducked behind the counter, going right down to the floor and hitting the silent alarm under the cash register as I went. "Get down!" I yelled at Rumbo. What a dumbass robber, I thought. The assistant manager had counted out the drawers at twelve-thirty and I'd dropped the only twenty I'd got since then in the safe. There couldn't be more than forty dollars in the register, counting small change.
I'd been robbed once before; company policy was very clear on the subject. Give the robbers anything they want and keep your head down. I lay on the floor and oozed blood from dozens of small cuts. One of them, on my left arm, looked serious enough to maybe need tending but I just wrapped my right hand around it and squeezed.
"Hey, doo, you gotta couple quarters?" I heard Rumbo ask. I hoped the old man didn't get hurt and wished he had enough sense to get down. but then if he had tha much sense, he probably wouldn't be a wino trying to buy a three dollar bottle of excuses.
"Shaddup, old man. Take whatever booze you want and get dafuck out of here."
A second robber I hadn't seen came around the end of the counter. Skinnier but dressed like the other one, jeans, black t-shirt, stocking over his face, this one had added a Lakers ball cap and carried a big knife instead of a gun. "Open the safe," he snarled. The knife looked like a very serious piece of hardware, slim and sharp.
I stayed down but scooched to the side so he could get at the register. "I don't have a key to the safe, no one does except the company truck guy," I said. "You can have what's in the register." It wasn't locked, just so a clerk wouldn't have to open it for a robber. I tasted blood in my mouth from oozing cuts on my face.
On the other side of the counter, Rumbo argued with the gunman. "Dat ain' right, man. Ol' Paul's a fren' o'mine. Just gimme fifty cents and I'll have enough for my bottle." I couldn't see from my position, almost under the counter, but I imagined the old wino looking around in confusion to see what had happened to the bottle he'd had.
"Open the fucken safe or I'll cut you," threatened the knife man, moving a step closer to me.
"Take a bottle, take two," the gunman told Rumbo. "I'll pay for it."
"Oh, yes suh!" Rumbo crowed. I heard him move off toward the wine bottles and the sound of what must be the gunman leaning against the counter over my head.
"I don't have a key for the safe," I repeated. The big black box of the safe lay just behind my head, under the counter to the right of the register.
The knife man sidled along the sandwich board, behind the deli counter. "Open the safe or I'll fucken stick you, fucker," he said. He stood nearly on my feet, right behind the display of pickled eggs.
I wanted to say something dangerous, like, "Are you deaf or just stupid?" But I didn't, I just repeated again, "I don't have a key." Actually, it took two keys, one carried by a manager and one by the man on the company truck. I tried to judge the robber without looking directly at him; the company book said that might be considered a threat. He didn't seem as big as the other one; if he tried to cut me I determined that I would do my best to kick him into the middle of next summer's reruns. I didn't have many options for fighting back, lying on the floor like that.
"Thank you, thank you," I heard Rumbo babbling.
"Yeah, yeah," said the gunman. "Just get the fuck out of here." He shifted his weight where he leaned on the counter, I heard the wood groan -- then a sound like a coconut being dropped on a sidewalk, a grunt and a sigh.
"I tode you, Paul's a fren' of mine," said Rumbo.
"What the fuck?" said the man with the knife. "You damn rummy!" I heard the metallic clatter as a gun hit the concrete floor. At least it didn't go off. Another ka-chud and another grunt and sigh then a body followed the gun. Maybe Rumbo was Sylvester Stallone; those muscles that had earned him his nickname were evidently still potent. The dumbass gunman had probably turned his back on the old man.
The knife wielder dithered about going back around the counter to help his partner. When he turned partly away from me, I scrambled to my feet, staying well back. I don't know why I got up, maybe to distract him from going after Rumbo.
"Run!" I shouted at the knife man. "Rumbo's going to get the gun, he'll shoot your ass!" I grabbed up the only weapon to hand, the hot pot of coffee I'd brewed when I finished cleaning the machine.
I never expected him to throw the knife. I batted at it with the coffee pot, spilling hot liquid on myself to go with the broken glass, wine and blood. The knife stood out from my stomach, just below my breastbone. I stared down at it, as stupid as a hamster in a mousetrap. The narrow blade had gone deep, only about an inch of steel showing between the hilt and my skin.
I couldn't breathe. It hurt like catching a line drive in that same spot, which had happened to me back when I pitched in Babe Ruth league. It hurt worse than that, almost worse than anything. It felt like someone had cut my strings. If you stick a knife into a Beanie Baby, all the plastic beans leak out -- it felt like that.
I looked up at the robber, at the man who had killed me. His face under the gauzy mask looked shocked, his lips moved. I thought I heard him say, "I'm sorry, Cissy," just before the lights went out that very early Friday morning.
* * *
Cissy -- Cisneros. It's the logic of schoolyard nicknames, the more embarrassing, the better. Funny, my dad had told me that he had the same nickname in the Navy. But no one called me that in L.A.; I'd left the nickname behind me when I left Oildale. I used to hate the nickname but by the time I ran for student council president my senior year, I even used it on my campaign posters. "Raul 'Cissy' Cisneros for ASBC President!" It made me stand out among the other candidates, people remember a nickname like that.
Not that I had a lot of time to think about it while I was busy dying. But I heard a voice again, saying, "I'm sorry, Cissy."
My mouth tasted like vomit, my head hurt and my stomach felt like seven days and nights on an ocean liner in the middle of a hurricane. Someone said, "Turn her on her side, she's going to throw up again."
And the first voice said again, "I'm sorry, Cissy."
Hands grabbed and lifted me, turning my head. I tried to fight back but I felt weak and confused. I finally got my eyes open but the light hurt so I closed them again. "What happened?" someone asked.
Drugs? I don't do drugs, I thought. Not even pot. Heck, I hardly drank enough to be considered a respectable college student.
"Shouldn't we take her to a hospital?"
More manhandling while I retched into a trashcan or something, my brain was not in good shape either.
"If she doesn't start snapping out of it, I guess we'll have to," said a voice. "Cissy, baby, honey. Open your eyes. It's Jennifer, honey. Wake up and look at me."
I turned my head toward the voice and opened my eyes a crack. A worried looking girl looked back at me. "Jennifer?" I asked. I knew lots of Jennifers but I didn't recognize this one.
"Oh, yes, baby," she cooed. "Wake up, honey. I'm so sorry, Cissy."
"What are you sorry about?" asked the male voice.
Jennifer tried to explain. "We were at a party. We're supposed to look out for each other. You learn to watch for people who might be trouble in our line of work. But someone must have put something in her drink. It was just Dr. Pepper!"
Party? What party? Was she even talking about me? Who works at a party? I shook my head. The pieces didn't fit. I peered into the bright light, looking through thick blonde hair that had fallen into my face.
Thick blonde hair?
I lifted a hand to push the hair away and stopped, staring at the slender, pale fingers adorned with too many rings and the longest hot pink nails I ever saw. I tried to glance down at the rest of my body but an enormous valley of cleavage between titanic white titties kept me from seeing much.
Okay, I screamed like a girl and fainted like a heroine in a bad romance novel.
* * *
In the darkness behind my eyelids, I walked a long and narrow corridor toward a beacon of light. I held a coffeepot in my right hand and my left hand rested on the knife sticking out of my chest. I felt calm and unafraid.
I'm dead, I told myself. I'm dead and I'm going into the light. I wondered if my momma's brother Edouardo --who I had never met because he died in Viet Nam twelve years before I was born-- I wondered if Uncle Eddie would be waiting for me.
Darkened windows in the walls showed me glimpses of my life as I walked. In one, I rode a red tricycle into the street but my babysitter, Nadine Cross, snatched me up and carried me back to my house. In another, Nolan Frye, who we all called Noogie, pulled me back from jumping into the river when we were eight. "Don't do it, man. It's flooding in the mountains, the current's too swift," I heard him say again. In a third window, a doctor I didn't recognize gave me a shot -- that must have been when I was ten and sick with no one knew what.
Other windows showed my parents and brothers and sisters and friends and relatives and even strangers doing nice things for me. I wept to know that all that effort to save me, to help me grow up to be a good person had been wasted.
Near the end of the corridor, with the light so bright at the end I couldn't look at it, a window showed Raggedy Rumbo, his dirty black hands trembling as he took a bottle of cheap wine and slugged a gunman in the head -- for me. His face and arms glinted with blood from cuts and his voice shook with terror as I heard him mumble, "Paul's a friend of mine."
It hadn't worked out right, but Rumbo had been trying. I tried to turn in the corridor, tried to go back and thank everyone who had been good to me, tried to let them know that I knew they cared.
One last window, the man who had thrown the knife that killed me kneeling beside my body. He had the mask off and I almost recognized him. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he whisprered, "Don't die, Cissy, please don't die." Coffee and blood ran together on the floor of the deli and I stood there by my killer as the cops came and took him away. One cop knelt down to take my pulse then shook his head.
Somewhere I had lost the coffeepot and the knife and even my clothes. I stood there naked in the darkness knowing that Raul Cisneros, the person I had been for eighteen years was dead. The pictures in the walls faded and the light at the end pulsed. I tried to turn toward it but some voice called me back. "Don't die, Cissy, don't die."
And I knew, somehow, I didn't have to die. Another way had opened up, a dark, narrow, twisty one, and down at the end of it, I saw a plump little red-headed woman holding the head of a blonde in her lap. "Don't die, Cissy, don't die," she pleaded. And I knew I had the power to save Cissy, to keep her from dying, to keep another life from being wasted.
My dad always said, "You can't pay people back for good deeds, you have to pay them forward." I had a chance to pay all those people back who had tried to help me -- by saving someone else's life.
I made my choice, struggling down the narrow cleft in the darkness. The scene faded as soon as I moved but I could still hear voices. "If she doesn't wake up soon, we're going to have to take her to the hospital," a man said.
"I'm awake," I struggled to say. "I'm awake," I said again, more clearly. My voice sounded high and light. Of course, I thought. I'm Cissy, I'm the blonde I saw. I'm a woman now. "I'm alive," I said aloud. It was a shock but considering the alternatives, maybe less of one than I'd already had. I'd made a choice and gotten a new chance to live. Could I adjust to being female? Well, half the human race seemed to manage it.
I opened my eyes and saw the plump redhead I had seen before. She smiled and laughed a little. "Of course, you're alive."
A dark-haired man stood behind her looking very serious. "How do you feel?" he asked.
"I'm okay," I said. "I think. But I'm very confused." Definitely an understatement.
"Someone slipped you something in your drink," said the redhead who might be named Jennifer. She smiled at me.
"Uh huh," I agreed, trying to sound intelligent.
"I'm not a doctor, but I still think we should take you to the hospital, Miss DiVinyl," said the serious young man.
"Carlos is a med student, fourth year at UCLA," said the probable Jennifer. "Remember him?"
"Uh, no," I said, trying to be honest. Cissy DiVinyl? Was that anyone's real name? Somehow, I knew exactly what he had said when it would have been much more sensible to misunderstand something so unlikely. I even knew how it was spelled like it was written in my brain. My new brain.
"Good God!" I said before anyone could say anything else. I stopped myself before I completed my thought aloud.
"What is it?" asked the redhead.
I stared at her, her cute face wrinkled with concern. I glanced at the still serious med student named Carlos and wondered briefly, irrelevantly, if he spoke Spanish. I looked down again at my enormous chest. But mostly I thought, Good God, I'm a stripper!
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