“Two orderlies are wheeling some old man in on a stretcher.”
“I thought you said not to call them orderlies.”
“What? I said no such thing.”
“Yes, you did. Just the other day when we saw that,” Mildred said, her head tilting toward the labyrinth of patient rooms where she and her sister wandered around every single visit until a passing nurse would set them back on course, “you know that. And I said look at what those orderlies are wheeling out of here and you said don’t call them orderlies. They’re not called orderlies anymore.”
Her eyes met Veronica’s. The two of them looked away, shuddering at the memory of the body they’d seen roll by. The sight had shocked Mildred to the core. The doctor’s office was the place where people came to get better.
“You said it was like how you can’t say stewardess or secretary.” They watched as the gurney was maneuvered into position by the reception desk.
“Well I never said the first thing, but it was I who told you to stop saying stewardess and secretary.” Veronica rummaged through her purse. “Hold this.” She stacked five unstamped envelopes addressed to credit card companies, a wadded up tissue, a receipt for dry cleaning that could’ve been picked up a week ago, a Tide To Go pen, and an empty box of Tic Tacs on Mildred’s outstretched hands.
Mildred steadied herself, ready for whatever came next. She’d once held a soggy brown paper lunch bag, three pairs of dirty gym shorts, a Gameboy, a TV remote control, six notebooks and three folders for a student trying to find their homework. She was up to this task.
A tissue wrapped package fought against Veronica’s hand as she foraged through the purse. “Ow, damn grandkids, with their silly toys. Watch it,” she said as she added a key chain to Mildred’s hands. “That thing’ll shock you. If I said anything at all about it, I told you not to call it a stretcher. It’s a gurney.” Her voice spat out in sharp, angry syllables at having to take the time to explain. “I’m never wrong about these things.”
Mildred didn’t mention it was I, Veronica who’d said that the man was on a stretcher. But that was Veronica all over again. She’d been the boss for as long as Mildred could remember. Certainly their mother had been too busy to bother. Veronica always had to be right. To be fair, she mostly was right. Hadn’t she kept Mildred from using a picture of Sugar Loaf Mountain, purloined from their father’s National Geographic, as an example of Spanish countryside in a fourth grade geography project? It’d been fifty years ago but Mildred could still feel the relief at having escaped the shame of her stupidity. “Everyone knows where Sugar Loaf Mountain is,” Veronica had told her. “everyone.”
Mildred knew of only one time Veronica suffered this fate. It’d occurred at a luncheon given by her husband’s boss’s wife. The woman had corrected Veronica’s pronunciation of a pool chair after Veronica called it chas lounj instead of the correct French shez lohn-gh. For someone like Veronica, who fancied herself well-educated, the experience was harrowing. Even Mildred’s agreement that chas lounj was the way most people pronounced the words couldn’t dissuade Veronica from her humiliation. The funny thing was that in less than a year, Veronica called out Mildred for mispronouncing the damn thing. And to top it off, Mildred was certain that Veronica had convinced herself that’s how she’d always pronounced it.
The waiting room was crowded today. The only seats left open were the two person bench seat in the corner and the chair by the door with the wonky leg. Everyone’s face held the resigned look of those who knew they were in for the long haul. The doctor was a specialist in a field with few contenders. You waited for him. He didn’t wait for you.
Mildred helped her sister pack her belongings into her purse. After Veronica had found her phone and entered a few words, then fixed the entry, then enlarged the answer to read the screen, she’d slid it back into the zippered pocket without a word. A sure sign she’d been incorrect about the stretcher—gurney thing. That’s two times wrong, thought Mildred with a small smile.
The door leading from the hall to the elevators opened and two blonde women and a blonde man followed by two more men and a woman holding a baby pressed into place on either side of the gurney. Mildred had never seen the reception area so overflowing with bodies.
“Look at that.” Mildred poked her sister with her elbow. “Gurney man has an entourage.”
The receptionist asked the group to take a seat saying she would call them when the doctor was ready for them. The two men with the woman and baby turned and ventured a few small steps, but as the seating pickings were slim, gave up and stood their ground. The three blondes didn’t move from the side of the gurney.
Mildred was fascinated by this group. Weekly visits to the doctor for over a year left her in need of distraction. She’d long since memorized every inch of this room from the smudge on the window pane resembling a sad Abe Lincoln to the number of tiles forming the ceiling (thirty going across fifty going down, that is if you added in what had been replaced by the rectangular lights—Mildred did). She knew which chair had the short leg so that no matter how you arranged yourself you’d always jerk when it went off balance. She knew which area of the room had a draft from the ventilation system. The air in the waiting room felt cold in winter and summer; you didn’t want to be caught in a draft. She knew that the TV was tuned to a medical channel that looped through twenty minute segments explaining why you should get a yearly flu vaccine, followed by tips for caring for the elderly and five exercises smart adults should do every day.
Mildred relieved the tedium by playing a game with herself. First challenge—ascertain the patient. This generally consisted of choosing between two people. The crowd now standing at the desk was highly unusual. Most patients were accompanied by only one other person, sometimes two other people. It was easy to spot the sick one. By the time you found your way to this doctor, you were pretty far gone. She’d only ever guessed wrong once.
That had been Mrs. Hagedorn. The picture of an elderly grandma, Mildred pegged her as the patient especially since the grandson with her wasn’t more than nineteen. He was an edgy, talkative sort who spent his time trying to get people in the waiting room to buy his girlfriend’s makeup. On one visit the receptionist asked him to leave and he said he hadn’t gotten his treatment yet. That’s when Mildred realized that he was the patient.
Second challenge—decide their line of work. This was more difficult. People didn’t walk into the doctor’s office wearing signs that said customer service representative or certified public accountant. Of course there were the easy ones like Susie Brinker who scratched out Algebra homework, or Mrs. Pfirrman who knitted dog sweaters. Usually Mildred had to work a little to figure it out. The problem with this part of the game was that as soon as she got to know someone, she looked forward to seeing them. Then, before long, they disappeared. Mildred learned not to ask the reason for their disappearance.
But this group was different. In sixty-three visits, make that sixty-two, they’d not gone the week of Christmas, Mildred had never seen anything like it.
When Mr. Grimmelsman—retired insurance agent, who was here for his widowed sister—got elbowed in the eye by the tall, burly member of the group, the receptionist insisted they take a seat. The three blonde people finally turned around astonishing Mildred with their beauty. The younger woman was dressed in a fetching, long, red dress; something Mildred instantly liked because she would never have thought to wear it to a doctor’s office. The woman was easily the most beautiful person Mildred had ever seen in real life. Her eyes were a bright piercing blue that shone out from an exquisite face, framed by honey blonde hair. Mildred’s heart beat stronger at the sight of such beauty and she all at once understood why it made some people act foolishly.
It gave credence to her hypothesis that the gurney man was extremely rich, perhaps the CEO of a large company. The two average looking men, Mildred decided were children from a first marriage. The woman and baby were the family of the smaller, cranky looking brother. The good-looking older blonde lady was the second wife. The younger blonde man and lady were children from the second marriage. Mildred dubbed them Mrs. Bobbsey, Freddie and Flossie after characters in a favorite childhood book.
The first marriage group succumbed to the receptionist’s remonstrations and moved into the waiting room. The couple with the baby took the bench seat. The other man picked up the wonky chair and placed it in front of them. When he sat down, the chair tipped nearly spilling him out. Mildred decided to call him Lamb Legs because he wore bright, white shorts revealing densely covered, curly red-haired legs that reminded her of wool.
In the face of the receptionist’s continued glare, Mrs. Bobbsey and Freddie took the seats recently vacated by Mr. Grimmelsman and his sister. Flossie, alone, remained next to gurney man. Using a lace-edged handkerchief, she dabbed at the drool on his lips then pressed her face next to his and murmured to him. Mildred reassessed the relationship—much younger second wife made sense.
She was too far away to hear Flossie’s words. The gurney man’s expression gave no clue. It never varied from a lifeless forward gaze, mouth slightly agape.
With a nudge of Veronica’s arm, Mildred nodded toward Lamb Legs and the couple with the baby. “Maybe we can listen in on these three,” she whispered. “then we’ll figure out what’s going on.”
Veronica had fallen asleep; something that happened fairly regularly now that sickness snaked through her body. Mildred’s touch caused her to jerk awake with such force she sent her purse onto the floor spilling all the flotsam so recently piled in Mildred’s hands.
“Mrs. Lindner,” the nurse from the lab area called Veronica’s name.
“Go on,” Mildred said. “I’ll pick this up.”
Veronica ignored her sister and the nurse as she leaned down to get the tissue paper wrapped package that had landed by Lamb Legs’ feet. He’d also noticed it and was reaching for the package. Their fingers touched the gold filigree tissue paper at the same time and instantly let go as they said, “Ow.”
“That’s mine,” Veronica said, her voice so loud people from two rows over turned around. “Don’t touch it.” She picked up the package but it fell from her fingers onto her chair as a spasm hunched through her middle. “Oh no,” she said and quick-walked as fast as the disease would let her toward the nurse holding open the door.
Frozen in half-stance, Mildred dithered over what to do. Help. Don’t help. Sometimes Veronica welcomed it. Sometimes she didn’t. Deciding to leave her sister to her own devices, Mildred turned back to Veronica’s spilled possessions.
Lamb Legs was busy gathering them together and setting them on her chair. “I think that’s everything,” he said. He gave Mildred a wide smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
She was used to the casual dismissal men often gave older women. She would have turned away from him but her curiosity won over her pride. “Are you here with a family member?” she said.
He nodded and motioned toward gurney man. “Excuse me, but I have to fix this for you,” he said. Before Mildred could react, he pushed aside her scarf and unbuttoned the first three buttons of the bulky sweater she always wore in the doctor’s office and re-buttoned them. “You’d misbuttoned. Sorry if I was too forward but I wanted you to look perfect.”
It took Mildred a minute to regain her composure as her body warred between two sentiments. She was put off keel by the way he’d taken charge of her sweater without asking. At the same time there’d been something exciting about his sudden attention. She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Thank you but I’m far from perfect.”
“That’s true. Age takes a toll.”
Her stomach dropped a bit as red crept into her cheeks. She busied herself by putting Veronica’s things into her purse. The tissue paper wrapped package carefully placed on top.
“That woman was certainly worried about that,” Lamb Legs said, indicating the package. “I was afraid she was going to bite my head off there for a minute.”
“Veronica doesn’t mean to sound like that. She’s very ill,” Mildred explained and felt her face go redder as she reminded herself that she didn’t owe him an explanation. But she’d never been good at stopping herself once she’d started. “That package is her talisman.” Mildred lowered her voice and leaned in a couple of inches. “She was clinically dead three weeks ago. It was at the eye doctor’s office. Not here. In case you’re superstitious.”
The look on Lamb Legs face suggested he was in fact superstitious.
“Only half an hour before, she’d called her daughter because she forgot this.” Mildred patted the package. “Veronica demanded that Jessie run over to her house and get the veil and bring it to her. Then wham, all at once, she collapsed. A nurse started CPR and the receptionist called an ambulance. Even the paramedics couldn’t get a heartbeat. It wasn’t until my niece got there with this package that she revived.”
“Wow.” His eyes lit up at this story. “Leukemia,” he said as if it was obvious.
“No, no.” Veronica hated it when people thought she had cancer. Her treatment consisted of chemotherapy so everyone always assumed that’s what she had. She would have a fit if Mildred let him believe that. “Veronica has a very rare disease.” Mildred paused. Even saying the word took effort. “Amyloidosis.”
“Ahh.” Veronica’s very rare disease held little interest for him. “She's doing something to my father. He’s perfectly fine when he’s with me.” He pointed his finger at Flossie making no effort to hide the fact that he was talking about her. “We’re here to have an official assessment.”
Now it was Mildred’s turn to say, “Ahh.” She felt vindicated in her suppositions and yet somehow annoyed at this man’s lack of interest. “Amyloidosis is a terrible disease. Leukemia can be treated and many times cured but amyloidosis is a death sentence.”
Lamb Legs was staring at Flossie who looked somehow incandescent even in this setting. “She says he’s no longer aware of anything.” He leaned back in the chair and almost tilted out again. “I’m sure I can get him to talk.”
Mildred stared at gurney man. The stretcher held him in a reclined position much like a shez lohn-gh that left his face clearly visible. She’d yet to see even a hint of awareness.
Mildred wondered if this was a dispute over a will. Maybe gurney man had changed it in favor of Flossie and Lamb Legs wanted it changed back. Death and money had a way of bringing out the worst in people. Mildred had suffered through three conversations with her niece Jessie on the subject.
“Hey mate, how’s it going?” Freddie had gotten out of his seat and was standing next to Lamb Legs.
His eyes were an even deeper and more brilliant blue than they’d appeared from across the room.
“Sydney to Hobart, that was rough.”
Sydney to Hobart, Mildred pounced on the information. Sounded like they meant Australia and yet neither man had an accent. They talked about what Mildred finally concluded was a yacht race.
“Kent always wins,” said Lamb Legs with disgust. “But what a lovely boat.” Before Freddie could agree, he said, “So what’s your sister’s plan here?”
Mildred couldn’t help a slight head bob of satisfaction at correctly guessing Freddie and Flossie’s relationship.
“The doctor will assess William. That’ll decide things. You’ll have to live with the decision. Blood test and all.”
“We already did a blood test.”
“This guy does his own test. It’s all right there in the office so there’s no way to mix up the results.”
“It’s time,” called Flossie, beckoning to her brother. He and Mrs. Bobbsey followed her and the gurney through the door.
Lamb Legs jumped up and ran after them only to be blocked by the nurse who said there was not enough space in the patient room. He would have to remain behind. Muttering under his breath on his way back to his seat, he bumped into the chair where Susie sat and knocked her phone to the floor. He would have kept walking if her mother had not insisted he come back and pick up the phone.
Once Lamb Legs had plopped onto his chair and almost fallen out again, the man sitting next to the woman on the bench seat who was now tented in a blanket as she fed the baby said, “This doctor will help us. I’ve heard he works miracles.”
“Father was perfectly coherent a month ago.” The words spilled brittlely from Lamb Legs’ mouth.
“Between the disease and the drugs to treat it, patients can get a little loopy,” said Mildred. “Veronica got that way,” she said. “It took a bit to figure it out but they changed her medicine and she did get better.”
This got both men’s attention.
“That’s where this little baby came in handy.” She patted the package again. “It calms her. She gets worse when she’s upset.”
“The talisman, you mean, the thing in the package?” Lamb Legs asked. “It seemed alive somehow.”
“It is to her,” said Mildred.
“What’s the deal? Is it some sort of what did you call it? A kerchief?”
“It’s a holy relic,” said Mildred. “She got it from the Shrine of St. Anthony. St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things. And there’s nothing more lost than Veronica’s health. I’m sure this veil is the only reason she’s alive.”
“But I don’t get it,” said the other man. “How’s a kerchief doing anything?”
“It’s special,” said Lamb Legs. “I felt it. There’s something about it. It’s full of energy.”
“Relic,” corrected Mildred. “It’s a bit of the fabric from a shirt worn by St. Anthony sewn onto a special blessed cloth.”
Both men fell silent as if they had to chew on this information for a while.
“You can go to the shrine and see if they have another one,” offered Mildred. “It might be worth it to help your father. Does he need to make some business decisions?” The last question was the closest she felt she could come to outright asking about a dispute with the will.
“What about that one?” said Lamb Legs. “Give me that one and you can get another one for your sister.” He must have realized that this sounded insensitive because he quickly added, “We won’t be in town that long.”
When Mildred frowned he said, “You said yourself that your sister’s case is hopeless. But he’s got leukemia. You said yourself that it’s curable. It could be the thing that saves his life. Isn’t that important?”
“I can’t give you Veronica’s veil,” said Mildred.
“No one’s asking you to give it to us.” Lamb Legs’ face wrinkled with belligerence. “I’ll pay you. How about one hundred dollars?”
There was something about the look on his face and the white shorts and the demanding tone that struck Mildred as funny. She couldn’t keep a giggle from escaping her lips.
“Five hundred?” Lamb Legs sprang to his feet and took out his wallet. He pulled out the bills and started counting. “Here, I have six hundred and thirty dollars.”
“Forget it, Harry,” said the other man.
Harry, thought Mildred, of course, and she tried to suppress her glee at learning his very apt name.
“How much do you have?” said Lamb—Harry to the other man.
The man found a further three hundred and fifty-five dollars to add to the pot as the woman turned from her tented baby and gazed on placidly.
“Here you go. Nine hundred and eighty-five dollars. Right here.” Harry held the cash toward Mildred.
The nurse opened the door and said, “Mrs. Sandman, your sister’s ready to go back to the examination room if you want to join her.”
Mildred barely heard her as her eyes stared at all the money.
Mildred thought Veronica looked grayer than usual as they waited at the reception desk. The receptionist had to ask Veronica twice if Thursday morning was good for her next appointment. Even as her social calendar dwindled her medical calendar exploded with dates.
“Your scarf is lost.” Veronica motioned to Mildred’s neck.
“Your scarf, the one you always wear to the doctor. It’s gone.”
“I got hot. I stuck it in my purse.”
Veronica was staring at her wallet. “Maybe I’ll pay cash today,” she said as the nurse asked for the co-pay. Her hand trembled with each twenty she stacked on the counter.
By the time they made it to Mildred’s car, Veronica was grasping for breath and had to lean against the door before she could get in.
“How about lunch at that restaurant you love so much?” Mildred said. Veronica was often hungry after treatment. The nausea wouldn’t hit for a couple more hours.
“Really?” said Veronica. “You never want to go there. You said it was too expensive.”
“Today’s your lucky day.”
Once seated Veronica closed her eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. “Don’t take this the wrong way.” Her fingers groped inside her purse until she found the package. “What happened to the tissue paper?”
“It must have come loose,” said Mildred. “It’s probably stuck in the bottom of your purse.”
Veronica rubbed the tips of her fingers against the cloth. “Anyway from now on, I’ll drive myself to the doctor.”
“Sure.” Mildred always found it easier to agree. Veronica often got quarrelsome at the end of visits. The doctor had been particularly brutal today when discussing Veronica’s prognosis.
Mildred watched as a spasm caused Veronica to pitch forward. Pain transformed the folds of sagging skin on her face into a heartbreaking image of agony. Mildred’s breath caught at the sight. It reminded her of the pictures that adorned the halls of their grade school. Each wall held the image of a saint suspended at the apex of martyrdom. The paintings were both beautiful and horrible.
With lips twitching together then apart, Veronica whispered the prayer to St. Anthony. Her fingers searched down the purse strap again toward the holy fabric. Then all at once, she let go.
Help or don’t help, thought Mildred. She was never sure what to do.