Pride Month — The Wreck of the Hesperus

Toni survived the big 7.3 earthquake in Tehachapi in her prison cell. She said the women’s prison suffered so much damage the inmates could have just walked away. She said she and others considered the possibility, but they decided to stay put because there was nowhere to go except to walk to a dinky two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere near the prison. Besides, they’d be easy to identify as inmates clad in their prison-girl garb.

Eventually, Toni and her lover, one of her co-conspirators, served their time and got together again. They moved to the sleepy little town of Sanger, about 25 miles east of Fresno, where Toni worked as a dispatcher for a local trucking company.

One morning in the shower before work, she discovered a lump in her breast, and sure enough, cancer. I don’t know if the medical response to her condition was typical for the day or if it was based upon the severity of her disease. Whatever the reason, the treatment turned out to be exactly the kind of brutality and barbarity “Bones” McCoy frequently railed about when he revisited and revulsed over our 20th century medicine.

I asked to see her chest one time, and she raised her shirt and showed me. It appeared as if the surgeons had started at the bottom of her rib cage and just scraped everything away down to the bone. But they didn’t stop there. They also scraped all the muscles along both of her sides all the way to her armpits. She referred to herself in her current condition as the wreck of the Hesperus, echoing the title of an old Longfellow poem about a shipwreck.

A few months after the surgery, her lover abandoned her.

Out in the garage somewhere in some old cardboard box, I have a sliver-plated cigarette case Toni carried with her in Korea. Inside, beneath the two little coiled wires that hold the cigs in place, a couple of brightly colored Korean bills are expertly glued in place. A graphic image adorns the face under which Toni had engraved the name of her lover.

Toni gave me the cigarette case one night after she tried to scratch her lover’s name off with a pocket knife after yet another attempt to reconcile with the woman again many years later failed.

The case now bears an ugly scar where she scratched through the silver down to the brass underneath. He lover’s name remains engraved there for all eternity.

Toni’s died of cancer at a public hospital in Compton a few years later.