On the side of a sunburned highway there is a rest area. It’s one of those California ones built in the 70s – pale green roof with big chunky stones for walls.
When I say “sunburned,” I mean it. You start to cook the moment you step out of your car, and by the time you get to the restroom your skin feels singed, and you realize why all those deep-desert tribes wear long robes: because sweating is preferable to baking. The walk back to the car feels a lot longer.
Under one of these little shaded areas, there’s a small woman in a yellow safety vest, crunching on a bag of Lay’s potato chips. Her name is Janet, she’s fifty-eight, and she’s out here every weekend. It helps make ends meet when the money from working at the thrift shop in town doesn’t cover things. She’s three years from retirement – three years from taking care of grandbabies.
The whole place is scorched from the heat and the shade is barely a relief. Dust kicks in from the trucks and the desert winds. And here she is, in between hauling trash to a nearby dumpster or tidying a restroom, just eating Lay’s and watching people go in and out. She’s white by heritage, but she’s developed that leathered, red-brown look from skin that’s been out in the sun too long.
“Do you have anywhere cooler to stay?” you ask, and she says yes. There’s a little air conditioned room beside the restrooms. She says she doesn’t feel comfortable staying in there.
You try to guess at why. Maybe it’s stuffy in there, or the air isn’t very cool. Maybe it smells like cleaning products or a bathroom.
After a minute she tells you she doesn’t like being in there because once, about three months back, a man had a heart attack and died on the floor of the men’s restroom. A little kid and his dad came running out of the men’s room to get her, hollering, “there’s a man on the floor and he isn’t breathing!”
She tells you about huddling on the floor of the men’s room, doing the CPR compressions while a stranger did the breathing, and you try to imagine how much of her own weight she had to throw at this fallen man – her fifty-eight years and maybe a hundred and ten pounds? – trying to get his heart to beat.
“He died anyway,” she says, and for a moment, there’s no crunch of potato chips.
“They told me it’d happen one day, that I’d have to get past it. Was probably dead before I got there anyway.”
She tells you it’s not comfortable in the much cooler room because she can’t see the people going in and out. That most days she is okay, but when the parking lot gets full – even on the really hot days – she has to sit out here and watch the people go in and out. And if someone is in there too long, she goes and checks.
She crunches another chip and you both sit there in silence.
You shake her hand and you tell her you appreciate her, that what she’s doing is generous and very kind. She smiles and shrugs, and crunches a chip, and watches the people go in and out.
And maybe now you can see it – the math she’s doing in her head, adding a face to a list whenever they step inside. Checking them off again when they come back out.
As you drive off, she’s hauling more trash to the dumpster, and nobody takes any special notice of her, and you wonder how many little guardians you bump into every day without realizing it.
In this world of strangers we’re told to be frightened of, you wonder –
– how many were checking you off their list when you got back to your car and drove away?