Small yellow leaves, crinkled, blew across the road as I drove along a five-mile stretch of highway, straight as an arrow, to do some grocery shopping in the big city, Anaconda, or Andaconda, as the locals call it. The tall fall trees went zipping by with their color changes evident on groups of bushes or fir trees.
A road sign commanded that I slow my speed to 55 mph. This was more like it, watching the mid-20th century working class houses go by at a more leisurely pace. Built close together to the left and right of the narrow highway and set back with only about three feet of lawn on each side, houses began to move slowly enough for me to notice their pretty pastel colors.
The illusion of being trapped in a tunnel was a thought I tried to ignore. This drive reminded me of the East German corridor in 1964, when you had to travel at a constant speed from West Berlin across East Germany to get to West Germany through a corridor where you looked neither right nor left. You were not allowed to stop at all during an hour time period, and if you did, the East German communist security personnel would be sure to stop you for interrogation, at the very least. Only now there were no armed guards.
Obeying the next sign, my sense of time was stretched out when I began moving at
45 mph. A slender bearded man was mowing his lawn, undoubtedly for the last time this year. He wore a tan baseball cap with the brim pulled down low over his face.
In another minute, the authorities said 35 mph. "Make up your mind," I thought impatiently. That day I had a lot to do to make dinner with the food I was planning to buy,
once I returned home to my small hometown. At this speed, now 25 mph, I enjoyed turning my head left, then right, then left again. That way I could even see people in the storefront windows.
Back in 1964–‘65, when I was a music student, I had been stopped once for carrying suspicious papers. The rifles were real and the guards weren’t smiling; their faces were rigid. The letters I was carrying were in English and erroneously interpreted by the two uniformed Germans. They were postmarked from England, where I hoped to attend a summer chamber music camp.
Two teenagers, probably both guys, were wearing their baseball caps backwards. Their heads were tipped back as if looking at a helicopter flying above. It was a little odd and disturbing to see their mouths wide open. One of them turned his head and waved as I passed.
Remaining at about 20 mph, my right toe began a develop a cramp. What was this? A train car? I wondered what a locomotive engine was doing in the middle of downtown Andaconda. Black on black, the train car jolted my musings back to the steam engine era and to the watch towers, dusty and grim, along the Berlin corridor.
A group of three country men and two women in sloppy blue jeans took baby steps alongside the train engine. The men flaunted straw cowboy hats and working boots. Feeling uneasy, I was unable to discern exactly why. Unpleasant memories, perhaps.
Unexpectedly, a young lady ran at full speed out of a large building across the street from the engine museum. She looked to be in her late twenties, with brownish untidy hair and a strained expression on her contorted, panicked face that was not especially pretty or homely, either. She didn’t even see me, but headed straight for her car parked on the left side of the street. It was unlocked, a 1996 Chevy Bel Aire that carried a crushed fender and rusted paint.
The girl hunkered down in the drivers’ seat, trembling with unrepressed sobs. Crawling along at 15 mph, I impulsively pulled over and parked my car. Looking both ways, I remarked to
myself on how lazily the cars and sparse number of pedestrians were progressing. The street had turned one-way with two lanes. One block east was the highway going the other way.
After waiting for the sad girl to start her car, I was alarmed to watch her pull out into traffic on a one-way street, going the wrong way. I opened my own car door belonging to a blue Honda. Not knowing why, I had to find out if this young lady was okay.
I sprinted across Park Street and tapped on her closed window. She looked startled, but after a minute, she rolled down the window.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Nooo!" said the girl, shaking her head but not wiping her wet face. Her shoulders still heaved and her entire body was shaking desperately.
"Listen, everything will be okay," I reassured her. "What’s your name?"
"Cindy," she sobbed.
Trying to appear calm, I replied, "Hi, Cindy. My name’s Julie."
Cindy looked at me sideways, not meeting my gaze, with wrinkled forehead. She did not stop shaking, or was it a tremor?
I asked, "May I just talk with you for a minute? Do you mind if I sit on the passenger side next to you?" A grumbling in my stomach area reminded me I was getting hungry.
A pause. "Oh, I guess not," Cindy said as she sat hunched down.
I circled the old car and opened the passenger side door as non-threateningly as I could, taking care to move slowly and smile kindly as I sat down next to Cindy. The car smelled of
cigarette smoke and gas fumes.
We sat there for a few moments. "What happened?" I asked.
Another pause, filled with Cindy crying hysterically, her breathing being rapid.
"Nothing," Cindy started out. "Some strange guy cornered me and called me a ‘victim.’ He yelled at me, ‘You’re nothing but a victim!’ That hurts."
As Cindy opened up and talked to me, her shaky body softened and she stopped crying.
I searched for something to say. "Oh, I’m sorry this happened to you, Cindy. Who was this man?"
"I . . .I don’t want to talk about it," Cindy answered. "I came here for counseling. I just needed to vent, Julie. You understand that? My boyfriend and I had a fight. I needed to have someone just listen."
"But instead this counselor, whom I’d never seen before, yelled at me and told me to leave my boyfriend . . . to pack some clothes, money and important papers and just take off when he wasn’t home. I was so surprised! And taken aback and upset that I couldn’t speak up for myself or walk out. Not cool," Julie’s voice had taken on an edge of anger.
"Oh wow!" I said. "That man ought to be punished for doing this to you. No one should blame you just for having feelings. No qualified counselor would send you out on the street shaking and crying. How are you feeling now?"
Cindy glanced out the windshield and up the street. "A little better. I want to go home. I don’t want to leave my boyfriend. I love him so much!"
"I can tell you do. You’re not a victim, not if you had the courage to come for help. Only I’m sorry this ‘counselor’ hurt you rather than helped."
I know," Cindy replied. "I want to go home now," she repeated.
I smiled at Cindy with pity and kindness mixed. "You’re going the wrong way on a
one-way street, you know. May I swing your car around for you, or do you feel up to driving now?"
Cindy sighed. "I think I can drive home now. It isn’t too far, just 30 miles."
I pointed out where Cindy could turn around to get to the appropriate side of the highway.
As I stood by the old dirty white car, Cindy looked in my general direction and told me,
"Thank you, Julie. You’re an angel. Not everybody would stop and take the time to talk."
Smiling with relief now, I said, "Not a problem. You just drive careful. Don’t let that stupid man get to you with his put-downs. Do something nice for yourself when you get home."
Cindy said, "It will take awhile for wounds like this to heal. ‘Bye, Julie."
I watched closely as Cindy drove away. She was doing fine.
An inner smile turned the corners of my lips upward and left me feeling almost at peace with myself. I was proud of myself for stopping. That took courage for me to do. Continuing down the Andaconda Corridor, I adjusted my seat farther back, breathing more slowly and deeply as my Honda crawled along through town. Berlin seemed a long time ago now.
In the distance at the edge of town, the Andaconda smokestack, formerly a copper smelter, towered above, dormant now. It seemed to be saying, "Good job. But don’t forget me and all the work I did over all those years."
© Copyright Kathy Kopp 2008