by Michael Elaine Alegria & r & The elevator door opens but I don't get out. I stand staring at my paycheck. My last paycheck, actually. My last ride in this 1970s-era avocado-green elevator. My last day on the job.
Ten years. Never missed a day.
The doors start to close again. My clue to leave. Still, I can't stop staring at the envelope in my hand.
Should I be insulted by the yellow Post-it note slapped on my paycheck, covering the amount? It says "Good Luck." Obviously my bosses didn't care enough to buy a Hallmark card.
Maybe my "sorry for selling the practice and putting you out of work" sentiment is in the form of a comma in my paycheck amount. Perhaps that is why the Post-It note is covering the dollar amount?
Severance pay, perhaps? I don't get my hopes up. That doesn't work out very well.
It sucks being a pessimist because no matter how hard I try, tiny rays of hope somehow infiltrate my logic.
And even though I'm in my negative state of mind, I'm still disappointed to find that my parting gift really is just the Post-it note. I discard the thoughtful sentiment in the small, stinky garbage can that the smokers use right outside the front door.
I walk from the building adjacent to the hospital and try to get to my car before I see anyone I know. Before I break into an ugly cry.
It occurs to me right away that I'm not crying because I'm going to miss this job. There are always other jobs.
They are tears of ungratitude.
No one even said goodbye.
I see her as I am about to cross the doctors' parking lot to my car. An old woman, she is looking around with a puzzled expression that is thinly veiled with fear. I get closer and see that her pink coat is actually a bathrobe and that her shoes are bedroom slippers.
She sees me looking at her, coming closer to her, and she smiles readily, relief washing over her face. Someone has come to rescue her, she must be thinking.
Her lips are stained with an orangish, caked-on lipstick, and despite her best efforts, only the front of her hair is combed neatly, framing her face. The back is sticking up wildly. Bed head.
"Oh, honey, could you help me?" She is tiny, much smaller than my own 5-foot-4 and probably at least 80 years old. Grabbing ahold of my arm with both hands, she laughs nervously. "I can't seem to find my car!"
I check to see if she is wearing a hospital bracelet. She has no purse, no identification. No car keys. But she is a patient somewhere. It's still only early March. Her tiny, thin feet must be freezing in those threadbare slippers.
"Ma'am, are you sure that you drove your car today?" I ask her. I am afraid to insult her or scare her. To have her run further away from wherever it is she has run from.
She puts a finger to her pursed lips, tapping them lightly and looking around, again, at the parking lot. At all the doctors' cars.
"Oh ... I can't remember," she says quietly. She looks at me again, up and down, her gaze landing on the employee badge hanging from the lanyard around my neck.
"Oh, Gloria, you're an employee, too!" She laughs nervously again but more assuredly. The name on my badge doesn't say Gloria, but I do not correct her.
"I'm Jewels!" From out of her bathrobe pocket, she produces her own badge, one that she has made herself. It is laminated. For some reason, that fact strikes me as funny and I giggle.
She's not sure what I find amusing. "I know it's a silly name," she says.
"No, no," I reassure. "It's not silly at all," I tell her. At the very least, I have a first name to go by. We begin walking slowly to the emergency room entrance. Surely, the word is out that she's missing, that someone is looking for her.
"Well, Jewels," I say as we walk, "I actually don't work here anymore. Today was my last day." I'm not sure if she heard me. It doesn't even matter if she did.
Her grip on my arm lessens a bit. She stops and stares up at the looming building.
"Don't you just love the new hospital?" She looks up at Sacred Heart, a hospital that has been a fixture of Spokane's skyline for at least 30 years, I figure.
"New?" I say. I don't know the rules of Jewel's game yet.
Jewels looks at me as if I'm the delusional one. "Yes, Gloria. We just had the opening ceremonies, for heaven's sake! We brought all the pediatric patients from the old hospital to the new one over the ... you know, that sky tunnel!" Her expression asks, "Don't you remember?"
Skywalk. She means skywalk.
I begin to tell Jewels that I was one of those patients, one of the children to be moved from the old hospital to the new when I was 3, maybe 4 years old. I'm on the downslide to 40 now. But she is already confused.
"You're right, Jewels." I say, hoping to put her at ease a bit. "What year did we open this new building?"
"Gloria," she says with mild disgust. "It's 1971! Are you trying to fool me?" She shakes her head in disbelief. But she is hanging on to me still and I have put my hand over hers now as we walk through the automatic doors to the emergency room.
I ddecide I need to call 911 but I'm quite certain that the sight of me talking into a cell phone is going to freak Jewels out. Although I have walked through this department a million times, I am amazed at how thrilled I am to see a payphone. I had never noticed them over near the elevator.
"Jewels, will you hold my purse while I make a phone call?" She won't wander. She has a job to do. She asks me if I need a dime. I turn a bit to block the keypad, dial 911 and wait.
"911. What is your emergency?" A female voice. Thank God. Women are always better with this stuff.
"Well, I found a woman wandering in the parking lot at Sacred Heart ..." "Her name?"
I clear my throat and talk as softly as possible.
"She says her name is Jewels but she has no ID and ..."
"Jewels ... Last name?"
Oh, this is going well. "I don't know her last name. I don't even know her real first name. She has no ID. She's delusional, by the way, and ... "
There is silence and the sound of light tapping on the other side.
"No one has reported anyone by that name missing. Have you tried her residence?"
"Which one?" I say. "The one she really lives in or the one back in 1971 that she thinks she lives in?"
"Call back if we can be of any further assistance." Click.
Further assistance? The irony is that the phone operator is the one with the job and I am not.
"Let's see if she can help us, Jewels." I motion toward the first nurse that I see. Jewels seems much more comfortable now, as if this is her home away from home. Her element.
The triage nurse doesn't recognize Jewels but Jewels is certain that the nurse's name is Nancy and that they went to nursing school together in ... well, Jewels doesn't remember the year, but she's sure they were classmates.
"You and I and Edna, we work up in pediatrics now!" Jewels is clearly losing her patience with Nurse Nancy, who in turn is wholly uninterested in humoring Jewels long enough to get her back to where she belongs in a reasonably good mood.
"Just tell me what I should do." My eyes are pleading with Nancy. This was supposed to be the afternoon that I treated myself to something I can't afford on account of my new unemployed status. I take a deep breath.
"She belongs somewhere!" I say.
But Nancy is busy -- too busy to help us, she says. Why don't I call the hospital operator?
I make a mental note of her real name so I can complain to her supervisors later, but I know I won't remember it. Where is that damn Post-it note now that I really need it?
Jewels wants to show me some lovely hat pins in the gift shop, but I just want to get Jewels back where she belongs. We compromise and decide to go to the cafeteria until we can figure out what to do. Jewels says she'll buy me a cup of coffee. I dispense us both a cup and watch as Jewels walks toward an empty seat by the window. I pay the cashier for both and catch up to Jewels.
We sit looking out at the city. At first, she's quiet and doesn't seem to realize that I'm sitting across from her. When she does start to speak, she goes on and on. Sometimes she's a young girl; other times, she realizes that she's an old lady with a fading memory.
"I love Spokane, don't you?" Jewels asks dreamily. She tells me about Cliff, her son, who has moved to Phoenix with his new wife, and how sorry they will be when July comes and it's 105 in the shade there.
Jewels tells me how her husband Bill is a mechanic who fixes her car, a sparkly blue Chevrolet. Or Ford.
Maybe she could borrow a dime from me and call him at his shop. He'll take her home. I tell her it's no problem. She can give me the number and I'll call him for her.
"He is a very useful husband," she tells me. Her smile fades. "But he's dead now." I ask her when. "1987. His heart gave out."
I scan the cafeteria hoping to see someone who looks like they're looking for Jewels. It must not seem odd that a young woman in a winter coat and an old woman in a bathrobe are sharing a cup of coffee together in the middle of the day. We are invisible. No one is searching for either one of us.
The years have been kind to Jewels. She is 39 when she tells me about her work here at the hospital and 73 when she talks about her son and his wife. Her eyes sparkle no matter what age she is.
"Tell me about yourself, Gloria." She sips her coffee and stares politely at me, her head tilted slightly to one side. It had not occurred to me until just now if she took cream or sugar in her coffee but she is drinking it black and not noticing if she hates it that way.
Jewels won't remember me tomorrow. I could run with this. "Well, Jewels, I'm a ..." Doctor? Surgeon? Best-selling author?
"A mom. And a wife. And I used to work here, too. Until today."
No one should lie to her.
She doesn't ask any more questions about me. The conversation lags.
"Well," Jewels says, pushing herself away from the table. She smiles and stands. Her coffee cup rattles a bit. It's still nearly full. I'm guessing she took two sips.
"It was so nice having lunch with you, Gloria, but I really should get back to the ward now. Say hello to your mother for me, won't you?"
I stand with her.
"Let me walk you back," I say.
On our way up to the pediatric ward in the elevator, Jewels' cover is blown. A woman from housekeeping recognizes her. Or something like that.
"Betty, you sure got far this time! Almost all the way to the third floor!"
Betty. "Jewels" is a much spunkier name. "Jewels" fits her better.
Betty doesn't like her real name, either. She holds up the homemade employee badge and informs the housekeeper that she is sadly mistaken.
"I'm going to have to turn you in for insubordination!" Betty warns her. The woman shrugs and Betty walks toward her, this time with her fists clenched and a pissed-off look on her face. I'm guessing Betty has been in a few bar fights in her time.
The three of us get out on the third floor.
"You know her?" I ask the housekeeper.
"Yeah, there's quite a few kooks running around here."
I want to tell her how rude her comment is -- not to mention how glaringly un-PC -- but Betty/Jewels is getting harder and harder to hang on to. She's small but freakishly strong.
"Do you know where she belongs?" I ask, my voice almost at a bitchy hiss. Anything. Please tell me anything, I pray.
The housekeeper laughs. "In the nuthouse, sister!"
I think I'm about ready to lose my cool. An unemployed, unbalanced woman and a demented old lady, loose in a hospital -- this could get ugly.
The housekeeper shakes her head as she rolls her yellow bucket and mop away slowly. "Ya got me, honey. Call security."
"I've had it with you, young lady!" Betty/Jewels says to her.
"Jewels, she's not your responsibility."
"Well, it's a good thing!" Betty shouts. Naturally, we are now the focus of anyone within earshot. I feel my cheeks getting red.
"Betty ... I mean ..." Damn. "Jewels, show me where you work."
Betty straightens her bathrobe, scowls at the housekeeper and marches down the hall toward Pediatrics.
"Have you tried the ER?" the pediatric nurse asks me.
"Obviously didn't help."
"No one is calling Security!" Betty/Jewels bellows.
Nurse and I look at each other. For some reason, Betty/Jewels does not like Security.
While we're waiting for them to show up, Betty/Jewels makes herself at home at the nurses' station. She gets miffed when she can't find the sweater she left on her chair yesterday but is pleased to find out they've replaced that old copy machine.
"How old is that machine?" I whisper, pointing to the Xerox.
Nurse shrugs and watches Betty/Jewels carefully.
"I've been here 14 years ... same machine."
The security guys are taking their own sweet time. I decide to get Jewels into a room where she can be cornered.
"Let me show you a couple of the rooms that I was in when I was here as a kid," I tell her. She is delighted at the thought that she was possibly my nurse at some point.
"Do you remember me?" she asks wistfully. "Maybe I helped you with your Jell-O?"
I tell her that the cherry Jell-O was my favorite but that nasty Cream of Wheat concoction the hospital would serve at breakfast was better suited for classroom paste.
"Well, I hope you weren't the nurse who gave me a shot while I was asleep. I tried so hard to stay awake every night after that and never laid with my back to the door!" Suddenly, the memory becomes vivid.
Jewels grasps my hand. "I would never do that to a sweet little girl like you, Gloria."
The room looks the same as it did back in the '70s, when I was an asthmatic little girl passing long nights by looking out the north-facing windows of the hospital toward the lights on the Carnation Dairy building as they lit up one by one.
C-A-R-N-A-T-I-O-N. They would flash twice and then start over again. And again.
"What are you in here for, honey? Are you real sick?" Jewels is straightening up the already impeccably clean room. She tidies the sheets on the bed.
I sigh. "No, not sick. Just tired."
Security Man knows Betty/Jewels by her real name.
He saunters into the room where I have spent the last half hour trying to stall Betty/Jewels with news that her real real name is Madeline. It's easier on the ears than Betty, I decide, but still less dramatic than Jewels.
"OK, Madeline, time to go home now." He doesn't look at all like a security guard to me. Skinny, not too tall. Not very old either. He reaches for her arm, but I'm not worried. Madeline could take him easily.
She grasps my hand and pulls herself behind me. She isn't as confident with him as she was with the housekeeper. Security Man has a past with her. He has scared her before.
"This is my patient and I am in the middle of my shift! You need to leave me alone!" she whispers in my ear. "Call Security."
I don't have the heart to tell her that this is Security.
Security Man isn't fazed by her story or by the fact that he's outnumbered two to one.
I think about how Madeline has probably been treated in the past, and I'm mortified. Her defenses come out quickly. She goes into fight mode in the blink of an eye.
I've been trying to get rid of Madeline all afternoon, and now she's clinging to me.
"Listen," I say. "If you'll just tell me where she belongs, I'll get her there safe and sound." I feel around my neck for my employee ID and take it off. "Here. I'm an employee," I lie. "I'll get her there safely."
Madeline comes out from behind me.
"You said you got laid off today, Gloria!" she says, loudly.
Security Man couldn't care less about my employment status or Madeline.
"It'll save you a trip." I say nothing more. I can't hand Madeline over to Deputy Dawg with a clear conscience.
He points vaguely in the direction of south.
"She lives up there in that old stone house, right below the cathedral. It's an old folks' home now."
I want to correct him with "assisted living." But I'm not going to chance it with him.
"Great. I know where you're talking about." I hand him my ID badge.
Madeline and I creep down the hall slowly. He doesn't ask if I promise to take her there right away. He doesn't even look behind him but stops in the hallway to flirt with a nurse.
"If someone comes looking for her, just tell them I have her," I say behind me.
I know that no one will come looking for her.
The stone house in which Madeline lives is about as warm and inviting on the inside as it is on the outside. There's no one at the reception desk when we walk in. Madeline gets agitated.
"I don't work here anymore!" she pleads with me, pulling on my arm, pulling me toward the door. "I work at the hospital! Gloria, please take me back to my office. I'm late for work!"
Her eyes are frightened.
"Madeline, neither of us works at the hospital anymore." I can tell she understands me because she looks down and a look of fatigue washes over her. Her shoulders slump.
When no one comes to see who has come in the front door, I take Madeline down a hallway. Calling this place "home" is a lie. It's a cold, depressing hospital ward and nothing else.
"I don't like being a patient here!" Madeline whispers. I hear a sloshing sound and look down. During just the short walk from the hospital to here, her bedroom slippers have gotten soaking wet.
"Show me where you sleep" I ask. She leads me right to it, to a room at the end of the long hall. It's acceptable but far from welcoming. Her bedspread is pink, like her bathrobe. There is no roommate.
I've already taken off her wet slippers, put them in her laundry hamper and put the thickest socks I could find back on her cold feet before a man appears at Madeline's door.
"Excuse me ..." he starts to say. "Who ..."
I stand and stop him before he can say anything else. "I'm Gloria. I'm Madeline's friend. I found her roaming the parking lot outside the E.R. at Sacred Heart."
He senses that I'm angry with him, with whoever was supposed to be taking care of Madeline and making sure that she was safe.
"Oh, was she?" he says, trying to be charming. He walks to where Madeline is sitting on her bed. He sits, putting an arm around Madeline and giving her a squeeze. She squirms out of his embrace and tells him to get off her bed.
"Why was she allowed to get out alone? I've been with her for over two hours and no one seemed to be looking for her!"
He stands and smoothes out the wrinkles he has made on Madeline's bed. "We did not let Madeline out alone, as I'm sure you know. Madeline has a way of escaping when she sees the hospital. She thinks she works there." He points to her window. "That's why we have her room facing the cathedral and not the hospital." I smirk. I can't help myself.
"Gee, what a good system." Obviously irritated, he gives me the name of the nursing home director whom I can "discuss the matter with." It's not his department.
"If you haven't already figured it out, Madeline is not going to forget everything just because she forgets most things." I turn back to Madeline. "You can't hide things from her!"
"Madeline, remember where I met you?" I ask her.
Madeline reaches up to feel where her name tag should be. "Oh, yes Gloria. We met at work! You helped me find my car!"
"And then what did we do?"
Gloria looks at him and speaks slowly, thinking over every word. "We saw Nancy, who I suppose has been transferred from the emergency room now. Then we had a lovely cup of coffee in the cafeteria. The housekeeper was rude to us. I showed you where I worked and then that horrible man from Security was very, very unkind."
"She's right," I say with mild triumph.
James begins to walk out. It's his turn to smirk at me. "Just an FYI for you and 'Gloria,'" he says. "Madeline never worked at the hospital. She had a child who died there." James stalks away, confidently knowing that he has had the last word and the truth, at that.
Madeline is starting to lean over. She's falling asleep sitting up. "They fired me, didn't they, Gloria?" she murmurs with her eyes closed as I get her into her bed.
"Naw, they didn't fire you, honey." I tuck her in as snugly as possible. "They couldn't afford to pay you what you were worth so they had to let you go."
She seems satisfied enough with my answer but won't let go of my hand just yet.
"What are we going to do now? We don't have jobs!"
"Yes we do," I tell her. "Our job is to sit and visit over coffee and be friends. Every Wednesday."
"Yes. Wednesdays. And next time please remember the cream and sugar, Gloria."
She is asleep and snoring softly before I am even at the door.