Thursday, 8 January 2015

Lunch with Laurie

My eyes open all by themselves. I didn't want to wake up, no alarm had gone off, it was still dark outside, considering it was six in the morning during November, that was to be expected. It's my damn internal alarm clock, no matter how late I go to bed, I couldn't get a wink of sleep after six. I rubbed my eyes frustrated that long lazy lay-ins, the only benefit of being redundant, were denied me. I roll over and stretch my hand across the wide expanse of empty bed to check my phone. No messages, not even a 'Thanks but no thanks' from the dozens of job applications i'd had sent out.
"Face facts Laurie," I said to myself. "Nobody wants you."

I never imagined I'd find myself here, searching for a job at fifty one years of age. I'm a middle aged woman now, how the hell did that happen? It was only last week I was a teenager heading off to nursing school with nothing but dreams in my bag. My life seemed to happen all too quickly. Two teenage boys, a decade in a job that I thought would be the one I retire from. No husband, well yes husband, but one that was as much use as a fridge at the north pole, Mikey, a long distance truck driver and all round asshole.

I threw off the covers and put my bare toe's on the freezing floor. I hadn't turned on the heat last night because I couldn't afford to fill the oil tank anytime soon. I had about a hundred gallons left and I needed to make that stretch until Christmas. I went downstairs to brew some coffee. It was too early to wake the boys, instead I checked my e-mails in case a job offer had come through. I was a nurse, at least I had been. Can you still call yourself a nurse if you couldn't find a job?

I'd worked at the Community Health Center in New Middletown since I left nursing college. It was were I'd married Mikey, it's where he convinced me to by this huge house even though I thought it was too big, it's where my boys were born, it was where Mikey walked out on me five years ago. Now its where I am trapped with no hope of another job after they closed the center and moved everything to Youngstown. It didn't matter a damn that the people here would have to travel  half an hour by car to get treatment or that it put me out of work, when work was hard to find. I'd applied for jobs all over the place, Greenburg, Youngstown, you name it, anyplace within a hundred miles. They were all either fully staffed or looking for someone younger.

I looked at my gnarled hand gripping the mug handle. I'd been fighting a battle with arthritis for years, most people wouldn't be able to tell but any nurse or doctor worth his salt would spot my symptoms a mile away. I can manage fine now but what about five years time? Would I still be able to do the lifting and carrying that made up the bulk of nursing? Perhaps, perhaps not. But no employer was going to lumber themselves with an aging member of staff hampered by an existing medical condition. I was redundant in more ways than one. I sipped my coffee and felt bitter resentment creeping up on me. The government didn't care about the people like me, except when it was time to vote or pay a tax. Then they cared, but when you needed help or were looking for a hand up they turned their back, hoping you'd go away, or die, either would do fine. 'A drain,' I heard one annalist describe the sick and elderly. When did the people who built this nation, this country become a drain? More importantly why was I feeling like one now.

The day I was told the center was closing was like being born again into a world where I knew exactly nothing. I expected help but instead I got red tape, I'd hoped for compassion only to receive derision. No such thing as a free lunch in the land of hope and glory, thank God for my employment insurance payments, without them we'd have starved by now. I hated thinking about these things, it was like poison in my mind. I sipped my coffee again but it was cold. I dumped the dregs down the sink and set about starting yet another day of uselessness.

***

Once the boys were on their way to school I wrapped up warm, filling a thermos with coffee and walked the short distance from 'Ward Ave' to the Mini Mart. I needed to catch a bus into Youngstown this morning, I'd an interview with a temp agency who provided emergency cover for the hospitals in Youngstown, it was my last hope.

As I sat on the bench my hands and feet were freezing, it hadn't snowed yet but the wind was strong, driving the bitter chill into my bones. When the bus arrived I counted out my coins and paid the fare. I missed the car so much, after two months of interviews followed by refusal after refusal it was clear I'd have to get rid of it. I couldn't afford to make the insurance payment never mind maintenance or fuel. The car had to go but without it I was even more unemployable, a real catch twenty two.

Two bus rides later I had notched up my 25th refusal of work. God almighty it was emptying bedpans and giving medication to nursing home residents, not heart surgery. What was wrong with these people. Petty bureaucrats in their Wall-mart suits playing with the lives of people, I felt like going postal on the lot of them. The bus ride home was miserable and devoid of hope, I could see nothing in front of me except the possibility of loosing my home, or going on benefits for the rest of my life. They made me redundant, that word now defined me, redundant.

As I got off the bus, the door of New Middletown Mini Mart opened, an old man in a black trilby hat and long coat tapped his way down the frosted steps using a cane. In his hand he balanced a brown bag of groceries. On the second last step his cane skidded away from him on the slippery timber and the man tumbled onto the frozen ground. I rushed over, my training overcoming my foul humor.

"Are you okay?" I asked helping the man to sit up. He looked about him, as if he'd just woken up in this exact spot. He patted his arms and legs, testing for damage before nodding and saying, "Nothing broken, this time."
"Let me help you up," I said, laying the empty thermos on the ground. Slowly the old man got to his feet. He was as light as a bird and my fingers felt a stick thin arm beneath several layers of clothes. I retrieved the mans cane and made sure he was steady on his feet before releasing my grip.

"My humble thanks for your assistance, Madam," he said doffing his cap in a very old fashioned way.
"Don't be silly, it's nothing. I'll get your groceries." I retrieved the ripped paper bag which had spilled its contents. The man had nothing but microwave dinners and potato chips.

"I hope you're eating more than this?" I said.
"Pardon?"
"I hope you are eating proper food, not just these kind of things. Do you cook?"
"Mrs Goldbloom did all the cooking in our house, sadly the stove has been unused in years, my talent's are limited in that direction but I have mastered the art of nuclear cuisine." he said with a smile.
"Mrs Goldbloom? Was she your wife?"
"She was my queen dear lady, a soul so beautiful, that God couldn't be without her for a minute longer and took her from me long before I was ready." A tiny tear moistened one of the deep wrinkles that surrounded his cheerful eyes. The two emotions seemed juxtaposed. Cheerfulness and heartbreak in one moment.
"You have a very unusual way of speaking Mr Goldbloom, I like it."
"Why, thank you my lady," he said taking off his cap to perform a deep bow but had difficulty straightening again. I had to laugh at the wrinkled charmer and took one of his hands, helping him upright once more.
"It's been so long since I've encountered a gentleman, might I be so bold as to ask you to share luncheon, that's if you haven't already made plans," I asked mimicking his refined way of speaking.
"I wouldn't like to impose."
"You're doing me the favor, I hate to eat alone," I said taking hold of his arm and taking his few groceries in my free hand, he carried my thermos for me as we made our way towards 'Ward Ave.'

"You have a lovely house Mrs..?"
"Call me Laurie, thanks. It was my husband who picked it. He wanted a place big enough to park his rig but I'm left with it now. It will heat up soon Mr Goldbloom, why not sit in the kitchen with me while I get things started."

While I cooked, Mr Goldbloom told me about Mrs Goldbloom and how they'd met. He described their first dance, the day he proposed to her and the day he lost her. I heated up some soup that I'd left over since yesterday and did chops with boiled potatoes and veg. Then finished off the meal with ice cream and coffee. I couldn't remember the time going so quickly in any day during the last year. When I checked my watch and it was nearly three thirty.
"The kids will be home soon, I'd better get a move on," I said. Mr Goldbloom got to his feet using his cane.
"Today has been a delight my dear, could I trouble you for my coat?" I got Mr Goldman's coat from the hook it the hall and helped the old man get his hands into the selves. I walked him to the door and handed him his groceries, in a new bag, which he tucked under his arm.
"Will you be okay getting home?" I asked him.
"Perfectly my dear, thank you again for a wonderful day."
"We must do it again," I said with a smile.
"What about tomorrow?" I was taken by surprise but covered it well, "About one a clock tomorrow?"
"Fantastic, till tomorrow," he said doffing his cap and tap tapping his way down the driveway.

***

I closed the door and the feeling I was left with was have done something useful at last, deep inside my heart I had a warm glow of fulfillment. I clicked off the heating switch, as I passed it in the hall and began clearing the table. When I picked up Mr Goldbloom's plate, a twenty dollar note fluttered from under it. I took the bill in my hand and sat on a chair. I was tempted to run after him and return the money but need kept me in my seated. I felt tears come and did nothing to stop them.

The following day, just shy of one, the doorbell chimed and I rushed to it. On the stoop was Mr Goldbloom with an even older man standing at his shoulder.

"I know this is beyond naughty, Ms Laurie but my friend Andy heard about our assignation yesterday and nothing would do him but to see this vision, descended from the very heavens, I found on the steps of the Mini Mart. I hope you don't mind?"

I blushed and stood to one side allowing the men enter.
"Mr Goldbloom your terrible," I giggled slapping his arm gently. It felt more substantial than yesterday. Could one good meal have such an effect.
"If this is putting you out you just got to say," said Andy with a deep voice belaying the size of the man.
"You're very welcome Andy come on in, there is plenty to go round."
"What has our angel prepared for us today? asked Mr Goldbloom, hanging his coat on the hook he'd used yesterday.
"Pumpkin soup, followed by pot roast with apple pie for desert."
"Heaven, my dear. Heaven," said Mr Goldbloom clapping his hands and taking his place at the table.

Mr Goldbloom and Andy were like naughty schoolboys. They laughed and joked their way through the meal making me feel like a teenager for a while. When the meal was over, and it was time to go home Mr Goldbloom asked me to fetch his coat, this time I was ready for him. When I came back I helped the man on with his coat, giving him a kiss on his stubbled cheek, before lifting his plate. The twenty dollar note was where she expected it to be.

"Mr Goldbloom, there's no need for that. You're my guest."The old man's features grew serous.
"Please don't, you'll ruin it."
"What do you mean Mr Goldbloom?"

He drew me to one side. "I'd spend that, and more, on junk in the Mini Mart and have nothing but rubbish in my belly. This way I get real food, the warmth of companionship and more than anything, a reason to get up in the morning. I'm not a man without means  Laurie, but I am a man without connection. If you refuse my pitiful compensation you'll rob me of this experience. You'll force me to walk out your door never to return.

His face said he was completely determined. I wanted to see him again more than anything, to feel needed, to feel valued. I nodded and he smiled. He kissed me on the cheek and turned to Andy,
"Shall we go my friend?" Andy nodded and the men walked to the front door. Mr Goldbloom stopped and turned.
"Laurie?"
"Yes Mr Goldbloom?"
"Same time tomorrow?"
I smiled,"Don't be late."

When I cleared the table I lifted Andy's plate and found another twenty. Forty dollars. More than I paid for all the food I'd used and more. I held the two bills in my hands and felt the first tender feelings of hope I'd felt in so very long. The world apparently wasn't so unkind. The following day Mr Goldbloom and Andy returned for their lunch, the day after that, a third person joined the group, Mrs Casey. As the days went by, the lunch time crew grew exponentially.

Soon I was serving lunch in two sittings, the sitting room became an unofficial community center. The house was filled joy and laughter. I so looked forward to answering the door each day, greeting smiling people so enjoying a few hours of company, laughter, and home cooking. Under each plate I'd find a note after each meal, sometimes a five mostly tens, sometimes even more. At the end of the month, I'd no problem meeting the mortgage payment with enough left over to fill the oil tank as the weather was getting worse.

One day lunch time went by, and Mr Goldbloom never arrived. It was unusual for him to be absent as he hadn't missed any day since we started our get together's, except Sunday that is. Sunday was our unofficial day off. I asked Andy if he knew what had happened.
"No idea, I was wondering the same thing myself. I know his phone number," he said.

We dialed the number and listened as the phone rang out.
"Do you know where his house is?" I asked Andy.
"Sure, do you think we should go over?"
"It can't do any harm and I'd feel better,"I said.
I finished cleaning up the kitchen while Andy said cheerio to the last of the lunch time gang. I linked his arm as we made our way down the driveway, into the freezing December evening. Ten minutes later we were on the porch outside Mr Goldbloom's door. There was no answer, no lights.
"He must be out," said Andy
"I'm going to have a look around, "I said, circling the house and peering through the windows. From the kitchen I saw an upturned chair and an ankle peeking out from behind the breakfast island.

"Oh God no!" I said hammering on the door but the ankle didn't move. I pulled out my phone and dialed 911 giving the address and telling the officer what I could see. The squad car arrived in minutes, New Mddletown is only a small community. The officer ran around the back and after one quick knock he used his night stick to break the glass on the back window and turn the latch on the door.

We rushed across the kitchen, the first look told me Mr Goldbloom was alive but the gash on his head and the weird angle of his arm also said he was far from good.  The ambulance arrived, and soon Mr Goldbloom was racing the thirty minutes to Youngstown toward some help.

In the days that followed I found that Mr Goldbloom had been standing on a chair to get something from a top shelf when he fell, hitting his head on the breakfast island. Mr Goldbloom broke his arm in the fall, but otherwise, he was making a good recovery. I took the bus to Youngstown and found Mr Goldbloom sitting up in his bed. He looked so tiny when he wasn't wrapped in five layers of clothes, so delicate.

***

"How're you doing Mr Goldbloom?" I asked placing a bag of fruit and some magazines on his bedside table.
"It appears I'm still wanted here, despite my mountain climbing tendencies. I think I'll attempt assailing next."
"Your terrible Mr Goldbloom. It's no laughing matter, you gave me and Andy such a fright. We thought you were dead, seeing you lying on the floor like that."
"You weren't the only one my dear," he said a little more seriously.
"Well at least you're in one piece. When are you getting out of here?"
"Friday."
"Where are you going to stay?"
"At home, where else."
"You cant stay at home, you won't be able to look after yourself. Have you no relatives you could stay with."
"None that I want to stay with or who'd be glad of my presence."
"What about a nursing home?"
"You sound just like my doctor now."
"Don't forget I was a nurse, we think the same ways. A nursing home while your getting better is not such a bad place to be."
"Do you know how much they cost?"
"No actually I don't"
"Nine hundred dollars, a week. A WEEK! Imagine that. It would be cheaper to check into the Ritz."
 "God that is a lot, surely there must be less expensive ones."
"Perhaps if you've insurance. I've money but nothing like that. I'll just have to get by on my own, its only a broken arm after all."
"I'll call in and make sure you're okay."
"I can't ask you to do that."
"Sure you can, what are friends for?"
"No seriously That's taking charity and I'm not a charity case, never have been, never will be."
"Sush! Stop talking rubbish, I'll call on you and that is that."

Mr Goldbloom looked serous and not happy but he didn't argue any more. We talked about the lunch time gang and the latest gossip. As I sat chatting with Mr Goldbloom in a setting I'd previously felt so comfortable in , I became aware I felt unaccustomed to the hissing and beeping machines, the incessant passing of people, busy with tasks, while patients lay helpless in their midst. It was the first time I became aware how terrifying hospital could be. I saw that fear hidden in the eyes of Mr Goldbloom as we discussed mundane occurrences and I felt for him. The hours flew by and it was soon time to catch my bus home. I was putting on my coat when Mr Goldbloom made his proposal.

"There would be one way I'd agree to you helping take care of me."
"And what way is that Mr Goldbloom?"
"If you worked for me, officially."
"Don't be silly were friends."
"Yes we are which would make this arrangement all the more pleasant. Please hear me out and consider my proposition. As you rightly point out, I'm in need of some medical care, you're a nurse who is currently without position. I propose that I'd stay in my own home where you can call on me, making sure I'm taking all the right pills, perhaps some light house work and in return I shall pay you for your time. Lets say twenty five dollars an hour."
"Twenty five dollars an hour is far to much."
"Nonsense my dear it's a bargain compared to nine hundred dollars a week for a single bed in Gods waiting room. I just ask you to consider it. If my terms are agreeable I'll be home about three in the afternoon on Friday."


I smiled at the funny old man and the way he pretended to doff his invisible cap as I left his room. On the long bus ride home I could only see good in his proposal. That's why I was waiting on his porch when his Taxi arrived on Friday. Mr Goldbloom's boiler was running and heating the house nicely. I changed the sheets on his bed and had a broth warming on his stove. I gave him my arm and accompanied him up the snow specked path.

***

That was last year. Mr Goldbloom now lives with me and my boys, along with Mrs Casey. The lunch time crew is a fantastic success, and with the money it makes, I have been able to get my friend Mary to help with the cooking. This allows me more time to concentrate on my new home help business, calling to old or sick people in our area, doing what I can to help them stay in the comfort of their own homes and delaying the move to a hospital or nursing home for years.

Mostly I'm happy to be bringing a sense of family back to our community, opening up hearts and doors and letting the light of love into people lives again. I'll never be rich but I consider myself wealthy beyond measure with the people I now hold as friends.
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