Darkness enveloped the lone gas station that stood on a rural road surrounded by open fields. I slowed down to take a better look, but I knew I had no choice. This was the only place for miles where there would be a telephone booth.
I was on deadline, having just left an important school board meeting in Oxnard, California. I needed to call the night editor to let her know the result of the contentious meeting between teachers and the district administration. The editor, Sarah, had handed me the Time’s black, bulky cell phone before I left the newspaper office, but the cell’s battery was dead when I returned to my car after the meeting.
Probably my fault, I thought; I had never used a cell phone and didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Cursing, I threw the phone back into its protective bag. There was no alternative but to find a telephone, which wasn’t easy. Oxnard was a spread-out farming community and much of it was shut down by 8 p.m. I looked at my watch. It was 9:30 p.m. I had half an hour to call in my story.
Fifteen minutes later, I pulled up to the front of the silent gas station, parked, locked the car and walked around the side to the phone booth. I noticed a car sitting at the back of the lot, but paid scant attention as I hurried toward the booth, slipped inside, and partially closed the door so the light came on. I began digging in my purse for change, found a quarter and took a deep breath when I heard its clink and the dial tone came to life.
As I dialed, my mind’s focus was on what I wanted to dictate to Sarah, but suddenly, I heard a noise behind me and then felt a hard slap on my shoulder. I jerked my head around and gasped when I saw a man standing partially in the sliding glass door, his angry face locked into my memory all these years later.
“Get away from the phone,” he said, his voice, low and mean.
“What?” I asked, stupidly did not understanding what he wanted.
“Get away from the phone.” He shoved the door all the way open.
Time truly stands still in such a moment. With the door open, I felt as if my clothing had been stripped from me; my puny protection suddenly gone. In a panic, I fumbled with the receiver and grabbed my purse, turning to find the man standing back from the booth, his legs spread apart like a gunslinger, his hand directing me to move out quickly. His baseball cap, pulled low over his forehead only showed his dark eyes. When I heard the beeping of a pager clipped to his belt, I froze, realizing I had gotten myself into the middle of a drug drop.
Out of the corner of my eye, the car I had seen at the back of the lot pulled up to phone booth. Three men opened the doors of the four-door sedan and stepped out. For a split-second, I thought they were going to surround me, but they stood waiting for me to move, and I did. I walked as fast as I could to the end of the building and then ran to my car, my blood pressure skyrocketing.
It seemed like an eternity before I found my keys at the bottom of my purse. And when I did, my hand shook hard enough that I couldn’t get the key into the door lock. When I did manage to open the door, I literally threw my purse inside, climbed into the seat, slammed the door shut and pushed down the lock button. I took a deep breath but it helped little; violent tremors coursed through my body and I couldn’t get the key into the ignition for a long, long moment.
I remember throwing the engine into reverse and screeching out of the gas station. During that tedious hour-long drive home, I relived every single moment of what happened.
The next morning, when I reported for work, my editor looked over her glasses, waiting for my explanation as to why I had failed to make the deadline. She listened quietly and then touched me softly on the arm.
“You were lucky.”