[Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise—Hebrews 13:2]
Supermarkets can be dangerous places. You never know who you’re going to meet. The mistake we all make, and it’s hardwired into all of us, I think, is that when we see a smile we assume there is some basic goodness behind it. And when we discover that it hides manipulation and deceit, it is always a shock, and for some who are fooled, like myself, it can be a matter of life and death.
Shana was a pretty 16-year-old in high school with a part time job as a cashier at the local supermarket. Her conservative parents had emigrated from Greece and her father was a cop. Their tight-knit family was very well-off—where the money came from was never quite clear—and as I got to know her she gave me the impression that her job was just something her parents wanted her to do after school to keep her out of trouble. She wasn’t a very good student and it seemed that a husband and kids was going to be her main ambition after graduation. I enjoyed going up to her because of her friendly smile and bubbly personality, and she always asked how I was and seemed genuinely interested in my replies.
But those large smiling dark eyes of hers hid her true thoughts, which in retrospect probably went something like this: “oh, my God, when is this creepy woman going to shut up and get the hell out of here?”
I didn’t suspect a thing though, and when it came time for an operation on one of my toes in October I confessed to her my worries while we were bagging my groceries.
“I’m going to be laid up for a few days and in need of care,” I said glumly.
“Oh, I totally sympathize!” she cooed. “My granny had an operation and my mom got a nurse for her 24/7.”
“That’s very expensive Shana,” I said. “Insurance won’t pay for that sort of thing and out of pocket would be way too much money for me. I just need someone to come in each morning and evening for a few days to make small meals and feed the cat and empty his litter box. Simple stuff.”
“Anything else?” she said.
“I’ll need to keep the foot elevated and bending down will be painful—at least in the beginning,” I continued. “I have to be very careful of blood clots, as I had some serious ones a few years ago and nearly died.”
She just stood there for a moment staring at me.
“How much are you paying for that?” she asked matter-of-factly.
Even though I’d grown up in this town I’d moved away years ago and now didn’t know anyone. I’d come back to sell my late mother’s house just a few months earlier and get it packed up and moved across the country to California.
So I replied, “Oh I don’t know, $30 a day seems fair.” I thought that $30 for about 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening for a few days seemed like a good wage, at least out here on Eastern Long Island.
“OK, I’ll help you,” she said.
I smiled. What a great kid! I thought to myself. “Thanks, Shana, that’s really very kind of you.”
I started to leave and then turned around. But she’d already moved on to the next customer, with that giant smile of hers. I walked back over.
“I’ll call the surgeon and make the appointment. Here’s my number,” I said, “and write yours down on this. I’m doing a yard sale this Saturday so perhaps you’d like to help with that too. I’ll pay you $10 an hour—you just need to stand watch while I sell the items and bring out more from the house.”
“Ok,” she said. “What time?”
“8 a.m.—that’s when the dealers start showing up.” I smiled at her. “Thanks again, you’re great.”
That Saturday Shana showed up on time and helped me bring out the various items that I’d tagged the night before for the yard sale. One of the items that I’d decided not to sell was a Steiff black cat that was a hand puppet given to me by my late father when I was about 5. It had a lot of character and had become very valuable so I had put it in my bedroom upstairs.
The day went by quickly and almost everything sold. Shana went into the house a few times to use the bathroom or drink some water and by 5pm I’d made over $600. I gave her $60 and sent her home, happy, or so I thought.
When I went upstairs to sleep that night I saw that the hand puppet was gone and was shocked to realize that it must have been Shana, as no one else had been inside. If I could have gotten rid of her then and there I would have but I knew no one in town to turn to for my foot operation. It was already scheduled for the end of the coming week, and a large storm, perhaps hurricane in force, was supposed to be gathering south of us, ready to hit by the next weekend just when I was scheduled to recover. I was stuck.
Sometimes a sense of foreboding is simply an irrational fear, but other times it is your instinct warning you to beware. In this case I should have listened to my instincts.
I saw her once at the supermarket during the coming week, and her eyes had this kind of glittering contempt in them that was hard to miss. I began to think she was one of these deeply disturbed teenagers who would murder me and then clean out the house with her drunken friends, the kind of awful thing you see on the late night TV homicide shows.
I went up to her and asked “Are we all set for this Friday?”
“Oh yes, I’ve got it on the calendar. Be at your house by 2!” she responded brightly, caressing her long black hair and smiling that big smile of hers. Well, call me old or call me foolish—or both— but I began to feel relieved. The power of youth to charm and ensnare always amazed me.
The day of the surgery a taxi took me to the hospital. My surgeon, who sat on the board of the hospital, had long been considered the best foot man in the area. But lately he’d been distracted by the illness of his elderly mother and I wondered if he was pulled together enough to do the operation. Even rattled, however, he was still the best around, or at least that’s what I told myself
as I lay on the table.
In pre-op the nurse came in and gave me a shot of something that made me feel really sick. My entire body began to itch and my heart raced. A nasty red rash rapidly spread up my arm from the injection site. “Help! Help!” I yelled, into the crowded pre-op room, but no one came.
This time I shouted as loudly as I could. “HELP!” and someone came over and said, “I see you are having an allergic reaction to the antibiotic.”
“Yes,” I gasped. “I’m allergic to it. The doctor knew that.” And this time that person moved very quickly and put a large dose of Benzedrine in my arm and the rash began to fade. I felt my heart slow down. But then they put something else in my arm which knocked me out completely.
When I woke up in recovery my entire leg was in a cast and both my thighs were black and blue. “What the hell happened?” I shouted at the nurse. “Who injured me?? And why is my leg in a cast? This was a simple operation for a bunion. All my foot needs is a wrapping. This is horrible!”
She came over and spoke in infuriatingly soothing tones, as if I was some kind of unstable crazy person. “It’s ok, my dear, this is what the doctor wanted.”
“WHAT? This makes no sense. I’ve had these kinds of operations before and NEVER ended up like this. That idiot probably got his patients confused.” I was furious, but still groggy, and trapped. No one was listening, or seemed to care. Was this a dream? Was I still asleep?? It was all so bizarre. I looked around in bewilderment as the nurse said “I’ve called a taxi for you and they will be here shortly.”
“A taxi? Are you nuts?? I can barely think straight!” I barked.
Shit. I hadn’t planned on a leg cast. And that fucking doctor had never even mentioned one. He knew I had a history of blood clots. All that immobility now. Was that jerk trying to kill me or what?
They wheeled me to the taxi and I miserably crawled in. I staggered to my front door on the crutches they had given me and went inside and called Shana.
I spent the next three hours trying to reach her with no success and finally fell asleep from exhaustion. When I woke up it was dark and I tried her again, this time blocking my number. She picked up.
“Hello?” she said tentatively.
“Where are you?” I said. “You’re supposed to be here to help. I’m home from the hospital and I’ve been trying to reach you for three hours!”
“Oh,” she said blandly. “I decided I really don’t feel like doing that sort of thing, sorry.” and hung up. Goddamn teenagers. I should have known not to trust her.
I lay there staring at the ceiling. The wind was starting up outside—I could hear the trees creaking—a major storm was closing in, and I was all alone.
Exhausted, I slept for hours. When I woke up it was dark and the rain was pounding down in a howling wind. The cat hadn’t been fed or his box cleaned and I was hungry. I called the doctor’s service but they told me he hadn’t picked up his calls all night. What kind of doctor was this guy, and where was he?
My survival instincts began to take over. I had my walker and crutches by the side of the bed and was strong enough to get to the bathroom and kitchen. I got up slowly and went into the small downstairs bathroom on my crutches. By sitting on the side of the tub I could empty the cat box into the toilet and refill it.
Getting around in the kitchen was harder. I found if I kneeled my leg on a stool I could stand on the other and reach up into the cabinets for the cat food and my own food, which tonight could only be soup. Bending down was tricky but if I did it quickly enough I was okay. My foot was already starting to hurt and my calf felt like there was a large hard knot in it. I bet I have a clot already, I thought. That goddamn idiot.
The thought that I might have a clot was very frightening, and potentially life threatening so I tried the doctor’s service again. This time he called back. He sounded drunk.
“I’m concerned that a clot has already developed,” I said.
“That’s quite soon,” he said.
“Yes, but you put me in a cast!” I replied, trying to stay calm. “Why on earth would you do that, and you didn’t even discuss this with me. Having the leg that immobile is practically guaranteeing a clot!”
I was astonished. I had a history of this and he hadn’t even put me on a blood thinner prior to the surgery if he’d been planning on totally immobilizing the bottom half of my leg.
“Look, I’m sorry. I thought it would help with your balance,” he said, slurring his words. “I apologize. My mother just died and I’ll be out of the office for a few days. If you still feel worried in a few days, call the office and we’ll figure something out.” He hung up.
I was stunned. He was obviously not thinking clearly. In a few days the clot could have moved and killed me. I felt my heart rate go up and my anxiety soar. I had to call the office the next day and get this damn cast off somehow. He must have left someone on-call.
I suddenly felt faint and had to get back to bed. As I lay down I think I passed out because when I came to it was morning.
The first thing I did was call his office. A recording answered, “The office will be closed for a week and will reopen at 9am next Monday.”
There was no forwarding number or service number. I’d never had anything like this happen in medicine, and was so disoriented that it didn’t even occur to me to go to the ER or call my family doctor for advice. I just lay there sweating and afraid, feeling utterly discarded and invisible. The trust I had put in him was completely shattered.
But I had to survive.
It occurred to me that perhaps I could call a cleaning service and have someone come in for a week to help a bit. This thought cheered me up, and although the quality of people was often very poor it was worth trying. So I opened the phone book.
As luck would have it, the service I called sent over someone I’d gone to high school with years before, a short, overweight woman named Delores. Delores had graduated near the very bottom of her class, and I near the top. Our fate as adults couldn’t have ended up more differently.
I’d left the front door unlocked and was lying down when I heard the door creak and she came into my room. She stood there staring at me with this weird look on her face. The passage of years had not been kind to her.
“So I see you need me now huh?” she finally said as she looked me over. Her affect had both veiled hostility, resentment and gloating in it.
What a way to begin, I thought, uneasily.
“Hey Delores!” I said, feigning cheerfulness. “Nice to see you after all these years—you look great.”
She grunted and then said, “What do you want me to do?”
I told her the few things I needed and she looked like I’d just asked her to muck out the horse stables at the Belmont Race track.
“It’s not too much and you’ll only be here for an hour or so,” I said. “Once in the morning and once in the afternoon and evening. So three hours total but you’ll get paid for four—for half a day’s work.”
She shrugged and walked out. I heard her go into the kitchen and open various drawers. This bothered me since I’d already laid out everything she needed on the counter, along with a list of things to do. I knew she was just being nosy.
I wanted to stay awake as long as she was in the house but I began to drift off to sleep. But the sound of the floor joists creaking overhead suddenly woke me up and I got out of bed on my crutches and hobbled to the bottom of the stairs to the second floor. Delores was upstairs where she had no need to be, and I could hear her softly opening and closing the various bedroom drawers. She was obviously looking for things to take.
“Delores!” I shouted. “Can you please come downstairs now? There’s nothing for you to do up there at all.”
I stood there until she appeared. She had this trapped look on her face but I acted like it was no big deal, although we both knew it was.
“So that’s it for tonight,” I said. “I see the storm is over so you’ll be ok driving home. Come by around 8 in the morning.”
That night I felt like there was a brick in my leg. I was sure I had a clot and slept poorly from anxiety.
Delores showed up late and lumbered into my room the next morning around 9:30. I was hungry, the cat was hungry and it was very close to the time the garbage truck was due for the week.
“Would you please take out the garbage and then put the can out front for the truck?” I asked.
She left without a word and instead of taking the garbage with her I heard her go outside. There was some noise at the front door and she came back inside and went into the kitchen. There was a loud bang and I suddenly understood that she’d brought the garbage can into the house and had emptied the kitchen garbage into it. There was a terrible scraping sound as she then dragged the can across the beautiful kitchen floor and the vintage oak flooring in the living room, and out the door.
I hopped out of bed as fast as I could and hobbled into the kitchen. I could see the scrape marks on the floor in both the kitchen and the living room. That was it. She was gone.
She knew the house was up for sale because there was a “For Sale” sign out front, and she’d done this just to be malicious. What a crazy bitch, I thought. I went to the front door and locked it, and when she tried to open it I said through the heavy wood as evenly as possible, “Thanks for coming but I think I will be ok now, Delores. The garbage was the one thing I really couldn’t do.”
There was a pause. “What about my money for today?” she demanded, breathing heavily. She’d only been at the house less than 15 minutes.
“I’ll call the office with your hours later,” I said appealingly. “Thanks again.” Another pause and then I heard her walk off and get in her car. I was so relieved. Even though I was still physically vulnerable, it was worth it to get rid of her without pissing her off because I had no idea what that dark mind of hers might think up otherwise.
In spite of the intense pain in my calf I was able to hobble around and take care of various things. It was exhausting, though, and I went back to sleep and then spent most of the day alternating sleeping with watching Stephen King’s “Misery” on TV. Christ, what timing. The perfect film.
I called in Delores’ hours and told the service that I’d prefer someone else for the rest of the week. The next day there was a knock at the door and I hobbled over to open it.
Outside was a petite, pretty young woman who shyly said with a trace of an accent, “Hello, my name is Pilar. I have come to help you.”
She smiled the loveliest smile and I immediately knew that I would be ok. She may have been shy but she radiated true friendliness and competence. I was immensely relieved. “Please come in, Pilar,” I said, “it’s so wonderful to see you!”
She stepped in and immediately asked, “May I make you some coffee and breakfast?”
I practically swooned with happiness. “That would be fantastic Pilar, Thank you.”
I went back to bed and Pilar came in shortly with some breakfast and coffee.
“I saw this list on the counter in the kitchen.” she said, “Is this what you want done?
I nodded and asked “Where are you from? Pilar is a lovely name.”
“Ecuador,” she replied, “and my husband is from Columbia.”
“How interesting. Are you here on a green card?” I asked naively.
She reddened slightly and nodded no. Then I understood. They were illegals.
“Oh. Well, anything I can do to help you, just ask,” I smiled at her. “I was a journalist and went to South America on assignment a long time ago but never to Ecuador or Columbia. Perhaps one day.”
She smiled her wonderful smile again. I could tell she was relieved.
The rest of the day Pilar came and went and did whatever I needed. She cooked some good meals for me instead of the soup from a can I’d been having. She was a consummate professional. I was so happy. In the evening I heard a car horn outside. It was her husband.
“Pilar…” I asked. “How would you like to come work for me directly, instead of through the agency? Once my foot is better I will need someone to help me pack up the house so that when it is sold the movers can just come and get it all.”
“I think that would be okay,” she said. “I just need to check with my husband Jaime. Would you mind if he helped?”
“No, not at all,” I replied. “It will go much faster that way.”
She left and I could see in the dark that there was a man waving. I waved back. A little boy got out of the car and ran to Pilar and gave her a big hug. They seemed like such nice people. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
The next day there was a knock at the door. It was Pilar.
“Do you mind if my husband comes in for a minute?” she asked. “He is just parking the car and would like to say hello. We have decided to help you with all the packing when your foot is better.”
“I am so happy,” I said. I was about to shut the door when I saw a man coming up the walkway. He was struggling to walk and one arm hung limply by his side. His face was twisted grotesquely and his head sunk into his shoulder on one side. It was her husband, Jaime.
I was shocked but instantly tried to hide my surprise. As he came to the door I welcomed him warmly. “You must be Jaime,” I said smiling. He nodded.
“Please come in,” I held the door open for him with one of my crutches and he struggled in.
Pilar came out of the kitchen and looked at Jaime lovingly. “My husband had a terrible stroke a year ago.” she explained. “He can speak, but with difficulty. We are doing the best we can.”
She went over to him and kissed him with such love that I nearly burst into tears. He held her with his one good arm. It was clear how much each one cherished the other.
“I will need to go to the doctor on Monday to get the cast off. Would Jaime be able to drive me?” I asked.
“Yes, as long as it’s in the morning.” Pilar said. “He has to pick up our son from school in the afternoon. I don’t drive so he is our chauffeur.” And they both laughed heartily. It was beautiful to see their bond of love.
My visit to the doctor that Monday proved there was a clot in my calf and I was admitted to the hospital for a week and put on blood thinners. I really should sue him! I thought angrily.
While I was there Pilar and Jaime visited me, took care of the cat and the house, and then brought me home and cared for me while I was still weak. I had never experienced such hard working, moral, and deeply professional people in my life. I trusted both of them completely.
In the next few months Pilar and Jaime came every day to do whatever I needed. They made a great team, with Pilar quietly doing the things that were now impossible for Jamie. But Jamie was very strong and his one good arm was able to pack many things and he was still able to drive to get packing supplies and other things.
My late mother’s house eventually sold and the day the movers came Pilar and Jaime drove me to the hotel by the airport. They had saved my life, and they’d come out of nowhere. I tearfully said goodbye and watched them drive away in their old beat up Oldsmobile.
Several years later I tried to track them down but they’d vanished. Their phone was disconnected and the agency back East had no idea what had happened to them. But wherever they’d gone, I knew that if angels walked the Earth they’d come to me that year as Pilar and Jaime. They had a strength and compassion that I’d never encountered, and the memory of them will be with me for the rest of my life.
Karen Petersen has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications. Most recently, her poems, flash, and short stories have been published in the Peacock Journal, The Bosphorus Review, Antiphon, A New Ulster, The Saranac Review, The Curlew, and Idiom 23. Her poems have been translated into Persian and Spanish. She lives in Santa Fe between two mountain ranges with her cocker spaniel and four cats. She has a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Vassar College and an M.S. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.