Everyone who tempts fate on a regular basis learns to rationalize and even forget the terrible disasters they bring on themselves. Even so, after the disastrous Montreal ‘project’, I more or less forgot my career as a cigarette smuggler and resumed working off my CS hours. I was able at last to admit that when I finished, I would miss the busy, useful feeling that the clinic gave me.
Moreover, it may be Bridgeport, but no one pointed a gun at me here.
Two weeks after Anne left, I took it into my head to follow up on some of the people Anne had prayed for. When I called Luther Lee’s number, his wife told me, “He’s not home. He’s at his new job.”
I called again two days later, and received the same answer. But a GHB addict of Luther Lee’s stature simply could not hold a job for that long. But then I spoke with a woman whose crippling angina pain had subsided to the point where she had abandoned her medication. An ex-steelworker with intractable back pain told me that, since Anne prayed for him, he was able to get along with only a handful of aspirin a day. But it was all so vague, and nothing that couldn’t be attributed to suggestion.
Winter had become serious by now. The sidewalks were slippery and snow was plowed into filthy heaps along the inner city streets. The wind bit fiercely against exposed skin. Most of the homeless found lobbies and shelters to sleep in. Every now and then, one of them would come to the clinic on a pretext, and attempt to stay overnight. We couldn’t allow it, but we would sometimes stay as late as eight o’clock, trying to find them shelter space.
Leaving the clinic late one evening, I decided to eat at Marco’s rather than wait until I got home. While I waited for Tony to serve up my soup and toast, a moustached man came in. I recognized him right away as one of the two men I’d encountered outside the clinic that night with Anne. He peered at me as if I were someone he should remember. I recalled his name: Rosario.
“How is your friend?” I asked. “Remember? I was with Anne the Healer? In front of the clinic?”
He gave Tony his order and sat down with me. “Juan, y’know, Juan? Your friend the healer tried to fix his liver?”
“Yes. In front of the clinic. I remember.”
“Well, he’s dead.”
“Dead?” I was dumbfounded. In spite of myself, I’d been braced for a tale of miraculous recovery.
“Two days ago. Fixing his car and it fell off the jack and landed on him.”
“Holy Mother of Jesus! That’s terrible!”
“Yeah,” said Rosario. “But he was dry for three weeks, ever since the healer lady talked to him. Not one drop. He was repairing his car to go to a job interview.” He barked out a laugh. “He hasn’t worked for two years, then he kills hisself getting ready to look for work. If he’d kept drinking, he’d be sick, but he’d still be here! Who says drinking is bad for you?”
Five weeks of my community service remained, and I found myself conflicted. On the one hand, I was looking forward to regaining my former freedom; on the other, I had to admit, if only to myself, that the work at the clinic had given the first real direction to my life. My brain told me that I could go back to my old life; I’d just be more careful and not get caught next time. My heart told me that I was happier in the Bridgeport Free Clinic than I had ever been.
The next day was a bitterly cold January day, and traffic in the clinic was slow. We always seemed to have more sick people when the weather was nice than when it was dreadful. Russell was home with a cold, and Carla and Carole had gone out for lunch, leaving Freda and me the only staff in the clinic. I was demonstrating to an elderly man the right technique for choosing and using insoles for his work boots. I wanted to tell him he was much too old to still be working at an outdoor job, but I doubted that he had any choice. Freda knocked on the exam room door.
“Phone for you,” she said. “Urgent.”
I made my way to Freda’s desk and picked up the receiver. “Is this Tim?” said the female voice.
“My name is Tim,” I said.
“I’m sorry, we only have your first name. We have a Miss Anne Bunsen here, and all we have for contacts is a notebook. Your telephone number was marked as her emergency number.”
She said, “I’m Theresa. I’m a patient relations specialist at St. Jerome Hospital in Indianapolis.”
“What’s the matter with her?” My stomach had formed into a hard knot, which I recognized as fear.
“Are you next of kin, sir?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m her brother.” In spite of the shock, the lie was automatic and rolled out smoothly. I asked again, “What’s the matter with her?”
“She was found suffering from hypothermia and hypoglycemia. We’re hoping that she’ll regain consciousness in the next few hours.”
Ever since Anne’s seizure at my house, I had memory flashes of Steel Magnolias, a movie which I had seen ten years before. Julia Roberts’ character Shelby had lain all day in a diabetic coma on her patio. At the tragic high point of the film, her new husband had to sign the papers to have her life support turned off.
“Will she survive?” I asked, my voice cracking.
“We have very good doctors here,” she said. Now that I knew clinic code talk, I knew this meant it doesn’t look hopeful, and panicked.
I asked Theresa for the address and directions to her hospital, and began assembling the logistics of driving to Indianapolis. The weather was messy and my tires were nearly bald. When had I last checked the oil? What about gasoline? How much would it take? How much money did I have?
Money. This venture was going to cost money. I had thirty-seven dollars in my pocket, and a half-tank of gas in the car. My car was twelve years old and used a quart of oil every thousand miles, but I had a spare quart in the trunk. It boiled down to this – I could get to Indianapolis, but I couldn’t get back. But it would cost two or three extra hours to get back to my bank in Western Springs before driving to Indianapolis.
They would expect that, as next of kin, I would be arranging for her bill to be paid, too. I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
Carla came back from lunch at that moment, and was taking her coat off.
“Carla, I’ve got to leave right now.”
“You told me you had no family.”
Sideswiped again by my own lies. “A friend is sick and needs help.”
“That’s why there’s emergency services.”
“I can’t stay to argue about it. I’m sorry.”
“Tim, you’re on community service. You need to talk to your probation officer…” Her voice died as I strode through the waiting room, buttoning my jacket.
I popped into Marco’s and bought a sandwich and a can of soda, and brushed the snow from my car. The wind blew fresh snow across the roads. A new storm was beginning, but the plows were not yet out. Indianapolis was four hours away. Three of those hours would be in darkness.
I guided the car onto the Dan Ryan Freeway. I was a little ahead of the rush hour, but the traffic was already congested. The snow became heavier with each mile. This was typical lake-effect snow, which meant it would continue to get worse as I drove down into Indiana on four nearly bald tires.
Near the Indiana line, the wipers were barely able to keep the windshield clear. Passing Hammond, I skidded when changing lanes, and ended up in the third lane. Fortunately, the heavy snow had suppressed the traffic and there was room to recover. Hoosiers, most of whom were smarter about these things, were holed up off the road by now. The visibility continued to decrease to less than a hundred yards as the last of the daylight disappeared. What remained was a dim snowlight that abolished sense of perspective and distance. Only the taillights of the relatively few cars kept me from driving off the road.
It seemed like several hours until the snow-covered sign for I-65 crept by overhead. From then on, as I drove away from the lake, the snow should taper off. I stopped for gas and used twenty-three dollars of my scarce cash.
When I finally found St. Jerome Hospital, it was late in the evening. Like every other hospital, the visitor parking was an afterthought, and I wasted another ten minutes finding a place to leave the car where it wouldn’t be towed away.
“How is Miss Bunsen?” I said breathlessly when I had finally found the Intensive Care Unit. “She’s conscious by now, right?”
The nurse looked blankly at me. “Her doctor will want to see you,” she said flatly.
I paced nervously about until a young boy in a white tunic came through the double doors. “I’m Doctor Regis,” he said, shaking my hand. There was no smile.
This guy had to be an impostor. He couldn’t be more than twenty-one. But I could read his ID, and there was his photo. The name was ‘Skip Regis, MD’.
“What is the matter with her?”
“We think she had a hypoglycemic seizure. Instead of seeking help, she found a secluded place and collapsed. That’s not surprising for someone in her condition. If some homeless guy hadn’t stumbled on her, she would probably have frozen to death.”
“But she’s still unconscious?”
“Yes, and I have to tell you that it’s going to be touch and go. We don’t know how long she was out there.” Regis, this kid doctor, looked at me accusingly and said, “Why was she on her own in this weather? Didn’t she have any place to live?”
“It’s a long story,” I said, trying to piece together a credible explanation. “She tends to do her own thing. Short of having her declared incompetent, we can’t completely control what she does.”
“Well, getting her certified may be quite a bit easier after this,” he said, “if she recovers.”
This last phrase struck into my soul like a knife. I had not expected that.
“What can I do now?” I asked, barely able to speak.
“While you’re waiting, there are some people in Admitting that want to speak to you.”
I would put off talking to Admitting. I knew they could not stop treating her if they found that we couldn’t pay, but I wouldn’t count on the quality of care improving much. The law said that they only had to treat her long enough to stabilize her, then…out the door.
I sat down to wait, taking deep breaths to calm and center myself. When scamming officials, in hospitals or anywhere, confidence was everything.
Soon a woman carrying a clipboard appeared in front of me. “I’m sorry, Mr…”
“Peterson,” I said.
“I’m Lisa. We have to get your sister’s paperwork out of the way.”
I gave her purely false information. Robert Peterson was a recently deceased friend of mine. I had memorized his social security number and other identity info for just such occasions as this. I used my own driver’s license, one finger covering the name while I pretended read off the number. Of course, Lisa, I couldn’t remember the name of my sister’s insurance company, but I knew she was insured. Finally, the lady was satisfied and gave me six forms, which I signed, ‘Robt. Peterson.’ She took her clipboard downstairs.
I paced around for another hour, before a gray-haired doctor came out through the doors. “Miss Bunsen is coming around,” he said gravely. At least this guy’s age gave me more confidence.
“Can I see her?”
He nodded. “Don’t be too alarmed at what you see.” He led the way inside.
Anne was lost in a nest of tubes and wires. A vital signs monitor beeped softly and the yellow lines tracing her heartbeat and respiration marched monotonously across the screen. The IV line dripped at a slow rate. A catheter bag hung on the side of the bed and was partly filled with yellow urine. The image of Julia Roberts, dying amid a tangle of tubes and machines, returned and my stomach contracted into a painful ball.
Anne’s eyes were closed. Her face was gray and her ears bandaged. They must have been frostbitten. Some sort of frame under the bedclothes held them up over her legs. Her feet must be frostbitten too.
“Anne?” I whispered.
She opened her eyes slightly and frowned. Recognition dawned, and she smiled weakly. “Tim. What are you doing here?”
“I said I’d come and take care of you wherever you were.”
“I screwed up, didn’t I?”
“Uh, huh. They said some homeless guy found you. You’re extremely lucky you didn’t freeze to death.”
“The Lord sent him,” she said. A little of the green light reappeared in her eyes. “He’s not done with me yet.”
I was about to say that she was just lucky, but this was not a good time to contradict her. If her God was going to bring aid to her in the nick of time, that was fine with me. But a real God, one I would be prepared to believe in, would have found her a nice warm bed and a balanced meal. He wouldn’t have left her alone and unconscious, in a diabetic coma, during subfreezing temperatures, with only a stray homeless man to rescue her.
I sat down beside her. I started to ask her about her adventures of the last weeks, but it quickly became apparent that she was still too sick to talk. I took her hand, and she let me.
I watched her as she drifted off to sleep. Without her luminous green eyes to distract me, I could see details of her face – a tiny mole among the freckles on her cheek, the delicate wisps of hair on the back of her neck, the soft pink of her lips.
A shudder began in the bottom of my belly, rose up through my chest, and caught in my throat. I cared very much what happened to this woman. She clearly could not look out for herself, and sooner or later, she would not be as lucky as she’d been so far. I felt an unfamiliar urge to take care of her, to protect her from her own folly. I understood that I would have to do this without interfering with her ‘mission’, or curse, or whatever it was. She would not tolerate that, at least not until I had convinced her that it was only a delusion. I would need all of my manipulative skill to do that.
To care this much about someone else was frightening.
I fell asleep in the chair, only rousing slightly when the nurses came in to check Anne’s IV or draw blood. When I finally awoke, light was streaming in through the blinds. I felt drawn and uncomfortable. I did not like sleeping in my clothes.
“I asked them to bring you some food,” said Anne. She was looking greatly improved, and smiled at me. A tray table was beside me, with a bottle of orange juice, a serving of hash browns, and a carton of milk.
“How are you?” I asked. The vital signs monitor was dark and quiet. The leads had been disconnected and hung beside the machine.
“They don’t think I’ve damaged anything, except maybe one toe. It might have to come off. But I’ve got to be in Cleveland in two days.”
“Anne!” I said, aghast. “You almost died! You’ve got to recover properly before you can do anything like that. They’ll just have to wait.”
She looked at me sadly. “No, Tim, they can’t wait. There are sick people waiting for me. You know I’ve got to do this.”
I tried to be firm with her. “Anne, you can’t help people if you die. The healthier you are, the better you’ll be able to help other people. Can’t you see that?”
“I can, but not in the way you think. My Lord will not allow me to die as long as He has work for me. Until then, He will send me that homeless man or someone like him.”
Oh, God! When she said that, I shivered again. What was happening to me? I mean, it’s not as if I loved this delusional woman. Why did I care so much what happened to her?
While my conscious mind looked on in horror, my mouth opened and said something that would change my life. “Anne, I promised to take care of you. You can’t do this mission of yours without help. Let me come with you and be your manager, or assistant, or gofer, or whatever you want me to be.”
She opened her mouth, and I could almost see the refusal rise into her throat. Then it retreated and died. She smiled quietly at me. She cautiously took my hand, and squeezed it. What the hell was I doing, and why couldn’t I stop myself?
Well, I assured myself, I’ve made sincere promises before and walked away from them. I could walk away from this one, too.
Later in the morning, another lady with a clipboard appeared. Her name was Jane. This one spoke directly to Anne. “We’ve called your insurance company, Miss Bunsen. There’s no record of you there.”
Anne was confused. “But I don’t have an…”
I cut in quickly, speaking to Anne. “Do you suppose they’ve not paid the premium again?” I turned to Jane the Insurance Lady. “Her employer sometimes misses the premium payments, and it causes her all sorts of grief.”
Jane smiled sweetly. “Well, we will try to work something out. In any case, we have to have collateral or some sort of guarantee that the bill will be paid.”
Anne opened her mouth to say something, and I cut her off again. “Jane, you can’t just throw her out into the street in her condition, can you? I mean, this will all be worked out as soon as we can talk to her employer and make sure the premiums are up to date.”
It took me another few minutes to confuse Jane sufficiently that she retreated to the cave, or dungeon, or wherever the insurance mavens live. But I knew this would only be a temporary respite. I quickly explained to Anne what I had told the Admissions people, as well as to Lisa, the second shift Insurance Lady.
“Tim, it wasn’t necessary to lie for me. The Lord would have seen to it that I would get enough care to get me back on the road to Cleveland.”
I screamed inside, your Lord left you to freeze! He would have stood by and watched while you were kicked out of this hospital on your ass! But instead, I said, “Perhaps the Lord sent me to take care of things for you.”
“Don’t mock me,” said Anne with surprising venom. “My God would have done what he wanted to do without lying or fraud.”
As lunch was being served, the resident, Dr. Regis, came in and examined Anne’s feet. To me, they looked gross, blue and swollen, as if they had been smacked repeatedly with a bat, but Regis said, “I’m very pleased with your progress, Anne. I think surgery is not going to be necessary after all. You’ll keep all your toes.”
I challenged him. “Is this decision coming from you or your insurance department?”
He was startled for an instant, but then he turned on me. “Mr. Peterson, the insurance people do not make medical decisions in this hospital. We’ll look after Anne until she’s out of danger.” His face was red and his eyes blazed. He didn’t look like a teenage kid anymore.
I was embarrassed by his outburst, but I couldn’t help but be cheered by his aggressive attitude.
He continued, more calmly. “A diabetic person with frostbite that serious should have developed infections, potentially very dangerous ones. At best, her healing should have taken weeks. But the infections never happened, and she’s done better than if she weren’t diabetic. She’s only been in here for 36 hours.
“In fact, Mr. Peterson, while you’re here, I was going to suggest that we get your sister out of bed. I think she’s ready to walk on those feet.” He turned to Anne and his tone softened further. “Let’s see how you do.”
He had me help Anne out of bed. She leaned on our shoulders as she gingerly eased her weight onto her injured feet. “Ow!” she cried. “That hurts.”
“That’s good,” said Regis. “There should be lots of pain. No nerve damage.”
She was able to support her full weight. We only had to help her balance. After she had shuffled slowly into the hall, grunting in pain as she went, the sweat beaded on her face and she gritted her teeth. Regis called a halt. He had her walk back to her bed. She lay back on the pillow with relief.
Regis turned to me with a big smile on his face. “Your sister’s a lucky woman.”
I made Anne watch television while I did some thinking. Sooner or later, the Insurance Lady on duty was going to come back and throw us out of the hospital. If Anne was ambulatory and her life was not in danger, they no longer had to take care of her. As soon as the front office found us out, we’d be out the door. When that happened, we would need cash, just for survival.
“Anne,” I said, “How much cash do you have?”
“I don’t know. I had six dollars when I lost consciousness. I don’t know if it’s still there.” She pointed to the locker on the far side of the room. The key was in the lock.
“I’ll be back in a few hours,” I said. “Sit tight.”
I took her jeans from the locker and went through the pockets.
“In the backpack,” she said. “Why do you need the money?”
“Gas,” I said. “I’m going to get us some more money.”
“Tim, the Lord will provide.”
“I have something I can sell. He has already provided.” This was not exactly a lie, but she would not have understood the truth.
I left the hospital and found my car in the distant parking lot. In the trunk was a cardboard box about one-third full of thick books. The covers were printed with Day-Glo colors: “Amazing Money-Saving Coupons”. In a zippered bag was my only suit, and the homemade ID tag was still attached to the breast pocket. Here’s hoping I hadn’t lost my touch.
I started the car and looked at the gas gauge. A shade above empty. Lucky for me, it was Saturday afternoon, the ideal time for me to make money at a mall.
The hospital parking attendant took Bob Peterson’s credit card. Otherwise the parking charge would have taken almost all of the twelve dollars I had left. It also confirmed that the card was still good. While I was chatting up the attendant, I learned that the Terrytown Mall was only two miles away. I had asked for a mall with a J.C. Penney and a Sears. Those stores were always at large, enclosed malls, and large malls were one of my happy hunting grounds.
Thirty minutes later, I combed my hair one last time, checked my tie in the rear-view mirror and walked into the mall, looking like a bright young entrepreneur. I held the box of coupon books under my arm. I found a good spot near the top of an escalator. I took a clipboard and a coupon book from the box and put it down on the floor behind a pillar.
I watched the prospects as they passed. I was looking for a young, unmarried couple. The guy should be a swaggering macho type, and the girl well-dressed and clingy. Right away, I spotted my first marks, an ideal couple. The guy had close-cropped hair, wore an athletic jersey under his coat, and looked like a weightlifter. The girl was blond, tiny, and giggly. There was an engagement ring on her finger.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, blocking his way. “Could I interest you and your wife in participating in a short survey?”
“No, thanks,” said the guy, about to brush past me.
“We’re not married,” giggled the girl. “Not yet.”
“As a reward for helping me out, we have a book of valuable coupons,” I said. “Two for one at Swanson’s Restaurants anywhere. Two free shirts with a pair of pants at Penney’s. You can save over $200 with just a month of ordinary purchases.”
The girl said, “Ben, we’ve never eaten at Swanson’s. I’d like to go there.”
“There’s three coupons for visits to Swanson’s,” I said. “Buy one meal, and the second one’s free. And you both get a free dessert. You can’t beat it.”
“And all I have to do is help with your survey?” asked the beefy guy.
“Well, since we’re representing the Boy’s Club, we ask for a small contribution of twenty dollars.”
The two looked at each other. The girl fluttered her eyelashes at her boyfriend. “Swanson’s?” she pleaded.
“All right,” he agreed. He hauled out his wallet.
I asked him six inconsequential questions and made a great show of carefully recording his answers. I shook each of their hands and graciously said goodbye. I immediately began scanning for my next marks.
I was still the master. Inside of two hours, I had a substantial wad of cash in my pocket. At one point, a security guard came up to me, but he only wanted to talk about the lousy weather. As the crowd thinned out late in the afternoon, I took stock. I had $380 in tax-free cash, and enough coupon books remaining for some later occasion.
I couldn’t stick around much longer. After two hours, experience showed, the chances increased dramatically that someone would come back, having tried to use their coupons, and the jig would be up. I couldn’t afford a tangle with the law now. I was on probation and had crossed a state line. I had forged the signature of a dead man. If anything happened to me, Anne would be stranded here, recovering from frostbite and a diabetic crisis, without friends or money.
Maybe, I thought wryly, in order to protect her, her Lord would protect me, too.