Katie bounced into the backseat of Rosa’s car and slammed the door shut. “Hey, sweeties, I’m ready to go. What’s up?”
Rosa turned around from her spot behind the wheel and looked at Katie, smiling. “I got a new shade of nail polish this morning – carnation twinkle.”
“Let me see.”
Rosa flashed her hand at Katie.
“Nice,” said Katie.
“You didn’t show me,” said Damita. She was in the passenger seat.
Rosa flashed Damita her hand, turned the key in the ignition and sped off. Katie settled into the backseat. She carpooled with Rosa and Damita to work. They parked their cars at the Park and Ride just off the 14 freeway at San Fernando and drove in the rest of the way.
“Girls, did you hear Lindsey Nightingale got busted for drugs last night in Beverly Hills,” said Katie. She pulled her Blackberry out of her purse, her fingers flying over the buttons.
“Get out! How did you hear that?” asked Damita.
“I barely have time to check my email let alone get on TMZ,” said Rosa. She drove up the on-ramp and onto the freeway.
“Really, Rosa – get a life,” said Katie teasingly.
“I’ve got one – I’m married with a thirteen-month-old,” replied Rosa.
“So girls, what do you think of my extensions?” asked Damita. She shook her head.
“You’ve got extensions?” asked Katie.
“I would have never known.”
“Sherdae’s mother did them,” said Damita proudly.
“She’s good,” said Rosa.
“I heard Big Joe got in trouble at work for calling one of the trainees a prissy-missy,” said Damita.
“Big Joe has a big mouth. That’s why they call him Big Joe,” said Rosa.
“You know, we’re 911 dispatchers, right? You’d think we’d be above the name calling,” said Katie. She watched the freeway zip by. “I mean, we’ve got to be the responsible ones. Name calling just seems petty.”
“Yeah, Katie, I agree,” said Damita.
Katie slouched in her seat. She didn’t care for big mouths like Big Joe. At work she avoided him like burnt bacon.
Rosa peeked in the rear-view mirror. “Why so quiet, Jitterbug?”
“Is this what I’ve got to look forward to? Co-workers acting petty and vindictive? Callers who are rude and obnoxious all the time? I’m twenty-one years old. Do I want to do this the rest of my life?”
“Do what? Answer phones?” asked Damita.
“Listen to everyone bitch. It’s so depressing,” said Katie.
“Jitterbug’s in ‘think’ mode,” Damita said. “Look, girlfriend, this is the best job you could have at your age. You still live with your parents, make good money, have great benefits, and the city will even pay for a part of your college. So you listen to people bitch about their neighbor’s trash cans, the loud parties, and Big Joe, but every so often you’re going to answer the phone and there’s going to be a legitimate emergency. Someone’s going to be having a heart attack or their stalker boyfriend is threatening them and you’re going to save their life. That’s rewarding. Don’t give up on being a dispatcher yet, sweetie.”
“Deep, Damita,” said Katie.
“But true,” said Rosa. She turned off the freeway and headed south on Topanga.
“Maybe I’ll quit and be an actress like Lindsey Nightingale,” said Katie.
“Oh, please, Jitterbug!” exclaimed Rosa.
“I could be the next American Idol.”
“Katie, have enough common sense to stay at least another year,” said Damita.
Rosa pulled her Toyota Camry into the parking lot. “We’re here.”
Katie leaned forward. “Well, no matter what, you two are my girls.”
Rosa chuckled. “You can be my lil’ sis anytime, Jitterbug.”
Rosa parked the car and Katie grabbed her bag. Ten minutes till roll call and another grueling day on the phones.
Katie plunked her purse down on the roll call table and sat down. Damita slid in next to her. The room was full and soft chit-chatter filled the air. Katie took out her pocket mirror and touched up her lips.
Roll call was annoying. The supervisors would come in, read everyone’s positions, and then brief the employees on recent events that were relevant to their shift before going on duty. They’d have a training lecture, like don’t run anyone’s vehicle or driver’s license unless the officers ask for it, or remember to keep water and snacks in your locker in case there’s an earthquake. Big Joe always had some wise-ass remark for the supervisors that either elicited excitement from the crowd or a high-minded heckler telling him to shut up.
The supervisors marched in. The only one with a lick of sense was Tim Adams. He read off the line-up.
“Radio Operator 19.”
“911 – console 41 with the E break.”
She frowned. The phones – again. The supervisors’ voices droned on around Katie. Her mind wandered. Her father was a police officer for LAPD. He worked in the Foothill division as a community relations officer. Her mom was a school teacher at the local elementary school up in Palmdale where they lived. She really admired her dad. He had a good work ethic – always giving his best in whatever he did. She remembered how he’d tease her as a little girl. “Katie, you’re going to be a police officer, like your Pop.” “Dad, I’m a girl, I can’t be a police officer.” “Sure you can.”
She smiled as she recalled her father’s teasing grin. She didn’t want to be a police officer, but she wanted to do something she considered noble or honorable. Hopefully she could save up enough money to go into law school. Being a lawyer made a difference in people’s lives. She wanted to start taking night classes at the local college in September.
Her city job wasn’t so bad, though. She did like the benefits. It didn’t bother her that most of her friends were in college while she had a job. She was taking care of herself and it felt good. She liked the independence of it, but she didn’t see how she really made a difference in people’s lives as a 911 operator. That was the thing that frustrated her the most.
“Okay, let’s go to work,” announced Tim.
A couple of groans filled the air as they usually did, and then the chatter took over. Katie grabbed her bag and shuffled onto the dispatch floor right behind Damita.
The floor was huge. The radio consoles were up front by the supervisors. The 911 and non-emergency consoles were toward the back. Each console could be adjusted for height and the keyboards were able to be moved to the operator’s comfort level. There were six monitors on each console. It was easy to get eye strain if you looked at them too long. Even the chairs could be adjusted to a person’s sitting position. Katie found console 41, took out her headset from her bag, and plugged in.
“I’m calling because my neighbors are playing loud music.”
“Stand by for a police operator,” said Katie. She transferred them to non-emergency.
“There’s a guy on the corner smoking dope.”
“Stand by for a police operator.”
Buzz. 911 hang up.
“Un memento, no cuelge.”
“I just wanted to let you know that there’s a van parked on the side of the street and there’s this guy hunched over the steering wheel like he’s had a heart attack or something.”
“Stay on the line and I’ll transfer us to the paramedics,” said Katie. This was the type of call the police would go out on, especially if the driver had passed away. The police had to identify the driver and notify his next of kin.
Katie stayed silent on the line, taking the information she needed to create her call.
“What’s the location?” asked the paramedics.
“Vanowen and Canoga.”
“Is he breathing?”
“I don’t think so,” said the caller.
“What kind of car is it?”
“It’s a beat-up orange van with a surfboard on the side. It says ‘Pacific Coast Surfboards.’”
Katie click-clacked away on the keyboard, putting code and priority on the call. How sad – to have a heart attack like that when driving. What a terrible way for his family to find out about his death.
Katie dashed out of the dispatch center. Her shift was finally over. Rosa and Damita were waiting for her in the car.
“I’m bushed,” said Damita.
Rosa started the car and drove off. “So am I. Anyone up for a drink at Season’s?”
“If I wasn’t so tired, I’d say yes,” said Katie.
“How about Taco Bell drive-through?” suggested Damita.
Katie grinned. “Sure. That’s do-able. I’m hungry.”
“Nothing like a little food to make you feel better?” Rosa asked.
“Heck, yeah. Especially after 911.”
“Food does it for me,” added Damita.
Rosa turned down Fallbrook and headed for the Taco Bell.
Katie walked into her home. It was dark, past eleven p.m. The house was quiet. Her parents were in bed. She plopped onto the couch and turned on the local news.
“Over in Acton, police found a ranch with several abandoned animals…”
Depressing. Katie clicked it onto the music video channel. She reached over and grabbed the phone. Maybe her boyfriend, Rick, could cheer her up. The Taco Bell she had eaten earlier had worn off.
“Hey, Rick, it’s Katie.”
“Hey, sweetie.” Loud noise filled the background.
“Are you at a bar?”’
“Yep. The Rum Runner.”
Katie rolled her eyes. That place was a cesspool of sin. “Why don’t you come over to my house?”
“Come down here, baby, and we’ll have a couple of drinks.”
“I’m tired,” said Katie.
“I’m partying, baby. Sorry. Maybe tomorrow,” said Rick.
Katie hung up the phone and slouched on the couch. How could he? What a jerk. He’d rather be out having a good time at the club. Who could blame him? He was just as old as her, going to the community college. He was one of the guys who didn’t give a shit about much. And her? She had the world on her back. Maybe she should quit. Sure, she’d be penniless and it would be harder to save for school, but then she could be with her friends. She missed that. Rosa and Damita were her buddies, but it wasn’t the same. They had their lives, too. That was it. Tomorrow she’d turn in her two-week notice. She wanted a little fun in life and now was the time for it. She laid down on the couch and let sleep take her into Queen Mab’s Shakespearean dream world.
Katie pulled up to the Park and Ride with her two-week notice in her bag. Damita was waiting in her scruffy Honda Accord. Katie locked up her car and slid into the front seat of Damita’s car.
“She’s not coming today,” said Damita. “She got some bad news yesterday.”
Katie raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
Damita drove off, her eyes on the road. “Her father-in-law died.”
“They gave her three days’ bereavement leave and a couple of vacation days. I guess her husband took it really hard.”
Katie watched the freeway zip by as Damita drove, practically numb. Poor Rosa. She was one of her best friends at work. Katie could talk to her about anything, and she knew from talking to Rosa that she internalized a lot of stuff. That was just the type of person Rosa was, she shouldered a lot of burdens. When it was too much, Rosa would unleash in a torrent of tears. Katie and Damita had been there last week when an upset Rosa had cried and finally broke down over a call she took in which a baby was found, barely alive, in a trash can in southeast LA.
“Do you know what happened?” Katie asked.
“Rosa said he had a heart attack while driving.”
“What? I took a call similar to that yesterday.”
“Really? I doubt it was yours, Katie,” said Damita.
Katie felt her heart speed up. She crossed her arms, trying to keep her growing anxiety at bay. “Ah, do you know if he worked for a surfboard company?”
“I think so – Pacific Coast or Pacific Surf,” replied Damita.
“How about Pacific Coast Surfboards?” Katie asked.
“Yeah, I think that’s it. He owned the business.”
Katie reached over and put her hand on Damita’s shoulder as she felt her cheeks grow pale. “I took that call.”
The sun was close to the horizon. The sweet smell of California poppies hung in the air. Several employees from work who lived in the area were going to Rosa’s father-in-law’s wake to show their support for her.
Katie abruptly stopped in front of the funeral home. It was a dreary uninspiring building with tall granite columns next to the door.
Damita put her hands on her hips. “Why are you stopping?”
“What if Rosa thinks I didn’t act quickly enough? That I didn’t do enough to save him?”
Damita grabbed Katie’s arm and practically pulled her toward the door. “Rosa is your friend. She’s not going to yell at you.”
Katie took a deep breath and steeled her courage. “You’re right.”
“If anything, she’ll be grateful that you took the call,” added Damita. “She knows you care.”
“Let’s do this,” said Katie. She followed Damita into the funeral home.
Inside, the funeral home was quiet and sober. The walls were just as dark as the outside. The curtains were thick; foreboding in a way. Soft organ music played. Damita signed the guest book, then Katie.
Katie didn’t know what to expect. She hadn’t been around death much. There was still a part of her that worried Rosa would blame her for not acting quicker or more efficiently.
Katie’s eyes cut to Rosa as she approached. Her friend wore an all black dress. Damita reached out, and Rosa wrapped her arms around them both.
“Are you okay, Rosa?” asked Damita.
Rosa guided them to a quiet corner. “Mario and I are holding up.”
“Who’s got the baby?” asked Damita.
“My mom right now.”
“I’m sorry, Rosa,” Kate finally said.
Rosa put her hand on Katie’s shoulder. “Are you all right? You look as pale as a ghost.”
Damita put her hand on Katie’s back. “Tell her.”
Rosa looked confused. “Tell me what?”
Katie felt a small bead of sweat tease her temple. She wrung her hands together, looked down, then finally looked up into Rosa’s concerned eyes.
“I just wanted to let you know I took the phone call about your father-in-law. I feel terrible―”
Rosa wrapped her arms around Katie. She felt Rosa’s tears dampen her shirt. Then Rosa looked up into Katie’s eyes.
“How do you know it was him?” asked Rosa.
“He was in the Pacific Coast Surfboard van.”
Rosa wrapped her shaking arms around Katie again. “Oh, bless you!”
Katie pulled away. “You aren’t mad at me?”
“Why would I be? I know you tried to help him the best you could. I’m so glad that whoever called got you.”
“You don’t think―”
“That I didn’t do enough?” Katie’s voice shook. Quiet tears trailed down her cheeks. Her knees shook. She felt weak.
“I don’t think that at all.”
“But I - he’s―”
“Katie, he’d passed before you got the call. All you could do was to get someone out there so he could be treated with dignity and respect,” said Rosa.
Damita smiled. “You made a difference, Katie, especially to Rosa and her family.”
“Yeah – in a big way. Your part was little, but Rosa’s family is here now, paying respects to a good man.”
Katie managed a little smile. She had processed hundreds of calls a day and she never thought about the difference it made in other people’s lives until now. She had definitely touched Rosa’s life in a way she hadn’t expected.
“Come, pay your respects,” said Rosa.
Katie nodded her head. She followed Rosa into the room where the body lay and other members of her family were. Rosa proudly introduced Katie as her friend and explained how Katie had helped by sending the police and paramedics. Rosa’s family embraced her. They hugged her, cried with her, and even thanked her for just being there. Katie felt overwhelmed. After paying her respects, Damita drove Katie home.
When Katie went inside, the downstairs was empty. Her mother was in bed and her father was at work. She flung her purse on the couch and plopped down next to it. She was emotionally raw. Did she really make that much of a difference to people? Rosa’s family was so grateful to her, yet a part of Katie still felt guilty that she hadn’t helped enough.
Her cell phone rang. She lunged into her purse and picked it up, looking at her screen. Rick. Should she answer it. Somberly, she flipped it open.
“Hey, baby, I was missing you. Why don’t you come on down to the club?”
“Not tonight, Rick.”
She flipped it closed, hanging up on him. Out of the corner of her eye was her resignation letter still in her purse. She plucked it out and stared at it for the longest time. Finally Katie walked over to the trash can and ripped it up.