Johnny America


Emer­gency Contacts


I hadn’t learned the pro­to­col. “This John Steeno wasn’t home,” I told Irene when I got back to the se­nior cen­ter with one ex­tra meal hy­droplan­ing at the bot­tom of one of the cool­ers, a sad lit­tle plas­tic clamshell of Sal­is­bury steak and a roll and some half-thawed corn. I didn’t tell her that the coun­ty van was al­most out of gas, since this was my first day and I didn’t know if she was who I was sup­posed to tell and I didn’t want to get in­to trou­ble. Irene croaked at me, arch­ing a raggedy fin­ger and wag­gling it at my naugh­ti­ness. She said I had to learn the pro­to­col: check every room, check around the client’s house in the sum­mer in case they’re in the back­yard, call the client’s phone num­ber, call the emer­gency con­tacts, call the ag­ing agency, call the cops. “There might be a dead one,” Irene told me. “We haven’t had a dead one in a long time.”

I liked the or­der of the pro­to­col, liked be­ing part of the chain of com­mand. I craved the sense of nor­mal­cy. “So what do I do now?” I asked. I was go­ing to prove that I wasn’t a screw-up.

“Don’t wor­ry about the pro­to­col to­day, Steven,” Irene told me. “I’ll take care of John.”

“Well, what should I do with his meal?” I asked, hold­ing out the clamshell.

“We’ll keep it. Put it in fridge num­ber two.”

I al­most told her she should eat it: she looked hag­gard and sunken, as if she were re­cov­er­ing from meth ad­dic­tion, but she was just a dry-as-dust Mid­west­ern la­dy with a ram­pant me­tab­o­lism, ap­par­ent­ly. In­stead I took the meal down­stairs and ate it my­self, hav­ing no idea which fridge was fridge num­ber two.

I went home feel­ing like this was go­ing to be a pret­ty good job, one I could keep through the win­ter as long as I didn’t get an­oth­er DUI, one where I could help peo­ple, make a dif­fer­ence. I was go­ing to do it right this time. But then the next week there was a dead one.

It wasn’t John Steeno — he was fine, had just been de­coupag­ing a puz­zle to a square of fiber­board in his base­ment den and lost track of time. Nice guy, showed me his den. Nope, the dead one was Gladys Reimer. She had been a nice one too, told me to call her Gladys in­stead of Mrs. Reimer. Good tip, since most of the oth­er old gals bright­ened up when I used their first names, as if I were a flirt or some­thing. Be­ing fresh. “Just try­ing to be cor­dial,” I told them with a lit­tle bow. I guess I was flirt­ing. It was too bad they didn’t give cash tips, but I be­gan to hope they might at Christmastime.

When Gladys didn’t come to the door that Mon­day af­ter five min­utes, I fol­lowed the pro­to­col. I fig­ured it would be eas­i­er to take a quick scuff around the out­side of her house first, but there was four inch­es of snow on the ground and I had on can­vas sneak­ers. So in­stead I went back to the coun­ty van and got the big ring of keys, the one you had to check in first thing when you got back to the cen­ter, since these old peo­ple were re­al­ly para­noid about some­one com­ing in to rob or choke them at night. And there Gladys sat on her liv­ing room couch, un­der a turquoise and tan afghan, not look­ing asleep but rather dry-eyed dead, curled up on her­self like a dead mouse. One arm raked off the arm­rest at a dis­turb­ing an­gle, her tongue tip was out, and talk ra­dio ram­bled on with a grat­ing A.M. coarse­ness. I’d fol­lowed the pro­to­col I’d been giv­en and I’d found her. Suc­cess. But now there would be some oth­er pro­to­col I hadn’t learned. I stepped back out­side and picked up her meal from the con­crete stoop. Look­ing at her in her dead-mouse curl on the couch, I’d sud­den­ly felt like her food shouldn’t be on the ground.

In my de­fense, af­ter go­ing back in­side Gladys’s house, I was this close to pick­ing up the phone and call­ing Irene — I might’ve even had my hand on the re­ceiv­er, if I’m re­mem­ber­ing cor­rect­ly — when I re­al­ized I didn’t know the se­nior center’s num­ber. It was like­ly in the van some­where, but I de­cid­ed to eat Gladys’s ham slice and au gratin pota­toes and sleep on it. I ra­tio­nal­ized that if I wait­ed un­til to­mor­row, maybe they’d think time of death was right af­ter I left. But as it was, with no new pro­to­col to fol­low, I felt like I would get in trou­ble. It would some­how be my fault. I didn’t want to get writ­ten up or vi­o­late some terms of some­thing I must’ve signed, and I didn’t want Irene mad at me. I had re­al­ly tak­en to this job. I was on a mis­sion for good. I was ex­cit­ed to prove I could do the right thing for once.

The next day I walked up to Gladys’s front door with her meal of chick­en and dumplings in hand and rang the bell. I think in the back of my mind I was cov­er­ing, in case the neigh­bors were pay­ing at­ten­tion. As I stood on the stoop wait­ing for no one to an­swer, I thought maybe to­day I’d just go back to the cen­ter and tell Irene that Gladys wasn’t home — break pro­to­col again like I had with John Steeno and let Irene han­dle it. Or maybe I could just jump right to call­ing the emer­gency con­tacts and let them come find her. But what if the emer­gency con­tacts called her of their own ac­cord, pos­si­bly that very night, and every­thing took care of it­self? Then the emer­gency con­tacts could be the ones to con­tact the ag­ing agency, who would call the cen­ter and tell Irene, who would tell me what I al­ready knew. Or maybe the emer­gency con­tacts would for­get about us en­tire­ly, and then they would be the ones break­ing pro­to­col. I hoped hard that these emer­gency con­tacts were loved ones who ac­tu­al­ly loved Gladys. She de­served that. Even­tu­al­ly I went back to the van for the big key ring, so I could go in­side and use the microwave.

I thought maybe a day off would give her that peace­ful look you hear about, but she still looked more like a poor des­ic­cat­ed ro­dent, still lis­ten­ing to A.M. pun­dits rag about green­ing the econ­o­my. I felt bad for her. It was good she kept that house cold, it pre­served her pret­ty nice­ly. She had the ther­mo­stat set at six­ty and be­fore I left I turned it all the way down to help her out, then put the kitchen and bath­room faucets on a trick­le so the pipes wouldn’t freeze. It was the least I could do.

Wednesday’s meal was beef stew. I was look­ing for­ward to try­ing it, though all that morn­ing I hoped some­one would call the cen­ter and give us the news about Gladys. Where were her emer­gency con­tacts? Didn’t they care? They didn’t. They were heart­less bas­tards. “Don’t wor­ry, Gladys,” I told her lat­er from her kitchen ta­ble. “Your loved ones will be call­ing soon. They’ll fig­ure it out. They’ll come find you.” She lay there like some­thing at the bot­tom of a shoe­box, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her she was start­ing to reek a lit­tle, though not enough to put me off my feed. “Beef stew to­day,” I told her. “Pret­ty good.”

I was back out on the stoop, ready to lock up, when I de­cid­ed I couldn’t leave her like that any­more and slipped back in­side. I didn’t think I could un­curl her com­plete­ly, be­cause of rig­or mor­tis, but she’d been a nice la­dy, and she shouldn’t have to suf­fer through an­oth­er night with her lit­tle hand dan­gling off the side of the couch and her head askew. I’d nev­er touched a dead per­son and wasn’t about to, so I curved a thick Bet­ter Homes & Gar­dens around her arm and worked it more or less to her side, then pushed the spine of the mag­a­zine against her tem­ple and right­ed her head. She looked bet­ter. I let the mag­a­zine drop loud­ly on the glass cof­fee ta­ble, which I knew was dis­re­spect­ful, but I didn’t want to touch the cov­er now that it had touched some­one dead.

Thurs­day was ground-beef lasagna, and Irene warned me the clients would be giv­ing me a hard time since it was so hard to heat up even­ly in the mi­crowave. It oc­curred to me that we should have a hot box in the coun­ty van, to serve some meals hot, like lasagna. I could work my way up and im­ple­ment this change and oth­er in­no­va­tions like it, I thought, when I took over Irene’s po­si­tion. I had a lot of time to dwell on this need for change on my route, as four out of five clients agreed that lasagna was too much trou­ble when they screwed their tooth­less faces up with skep­ti­cism and grudg­ing­ly clawed it from my of­fer­ing hands. In­grates. It was a rough day — on top of this there was a sol­id lit­tle snow show­er while I rat­tled among their cray­on-col­ored ranch hous­es — so I de­cid­ed mid­way through to push hard and then save Gladys’s house for last.

The lasagna was in­deed a chal­lenge to re­heat, un­til I made peace with the fact that it was go­ing to be a two-part process: eat around the out­side, then stick it back in Gladys’s mi­crowave to heat up the frozen core. It was prob­a­bly the best-tast­ing thing I’d had so far and warmed me up good in Gladys’s cold house.

When I got back to the cen­ter, Irene asked where I got my pin.

“Gladys Reimer gave it to me,” I told her. It was this bi­cen­ten­ni­al flag pin I’d found in her bath­room, with the reg­u­lar flag fac­ing one way and the colo­nial fac­ing the oth­er, and that car­toon­ish ’76 in a blue cir­cle con­nect­ing them in the mid­dle. Just a lit­tle thing, but I liked it be­cause I’d been a bi­cen­ten­ni­al ba­by. It cheered me up.

“You shouldn’t ac­cept gifts from clients,” Irene said, but she didn’t tell me to give it back.

The next day was Fri­day and I thought it was crazy that it had been a week by this point and the emer­gency con­tacts still hadn’t caught on about Gladys. All morn­ing at the se­nior cen­ter I let my­self get jazzed up on burnt cof­fee from down­stairs that I wasn’t sup­posed to be drink­ing and whipped my­self in­to a fren­zy about these loved ones. I mean, with the up­com­ing hol­i­days and all. Can you be­lieve it? The thought en­tered my mind that maybe she had done a lit­tle jail time re­cent­ly. Do a lit­tle jail time here and there and your loved ones don’t call any­more. I mean, I wasn’t even a felon. A felon I could understand.

I drove my rounds out of spite. John Steeno and the rest of them looked slack-jawed and de­men­tia-strick­en and the best I could do was hand them their tu­na casse­role and tell them it was sup­posed to snow again, six to eight inch­es, and watch as they clutched their scaly chests in fright. I told them call your loved ones or the ag­ing agency, don’t you go shov­el that walk your­self, though in­side I was think­ing if they want­ed to go ahead and keel over in some crusty snow­bank they could. I saved Gladys for last again, be­cause that had been a nice lit­tle re­ward yes­ter­day, and it looked like I’d need an­oth­er to­day be­cause al­ready the snow had start­ed. Gladys would un­der­stand me and my woes. I knew she was dead, but still, doesn’t your soul live on? It seemed like hers would be hang­ing around for at least a week. Or maybe she was an an­gel, like the guy in It’s a Won­der­ful Life, and I was like Jim­my Stewart.

“Gladys, you wouldn’t have any­thing to drink, now would you, hon­ey?” was the first thing I asked. (Even if she was an an­gel, I was still her guest. I mean, her house was freez­ing cold and smelled like a dead body, and I was be­ing po­lite about that.) I found on­ly two dusty-topped al­most-full bot­tles in the tray cup­board near the sink, one brandy and one vod­ka. I poured a brandy for me and one for her — spir­its for the spir­it, I had to chuck­le at that. The liquor seemed to have sharp­ened with its age, which helped nice­ly in cut­ting the taste of the tuna.

“Gladys,” I said, “I’m be­gin­ning to think it’s go­ing to take a while for your emer­gency con­tacts to call.” I want you to know now that I wasn’t talk­ing to her corpse, which I knew was just a cor­po­re­al shell. I was talk­ing to her brandy glass. “Are you go­ing to be all right here in the snow? Who does your shov­el­ing?” Maybe that would solve it: the snow. Neigh­bor boy knock­ing on the door. Husky, beard­ed son-in-law fi­nal­ly get­ting up off his ass and check­ing on the woman who gave birth to the love of his life. Some­thing. There was a soul in pur­ga­to­ry here and no one would do any­thing about it. It made me sick.

Halfway back to the cen­ter, I had a rev­e­la­tion. I’d been learn­ing a lot about these oth­er ser­vices they give to old peo­ple as free­bies, like clean­ing and care­tak­ing. I could pop in on the week­end, when we didn’t run meals out to the old folks, and check up on her. I pulled over to the curb and slid her house key off the big ring, know­ing by now that Irene didn’t ac­tu­al­ly count all those keys, just checked the ring in. I just couldn’t bear to leave Gladys alone in there with that dead body all week­end. It had got­ten so you couldn’t even be com­fort­able on that side of the house anymore.

Irene was fraz­zled by the snow, with every­one run­ning late and then tromp­ing their boots off on the rub­ber-edged mats by the doors, but usu­al­ly not do­ing a good enough job. “Someone’s gonna have to mop,” she told me, which was my cue to un­clip Gladys’s in­fo sheet from my route board and duck out ear­ly. I want­ed to make sure I had her emer­gency con­tacts on me, in case I want­ed to give those rot­ten sons of bitch­es a piece of my mind.

I hadn’t planned to, but I drove by Gladys’s house on the way home, and I stopped. When I saw the snow pil­ing up on her dri­ve­way, I re­mem­bered how my dad would al­ways have us start shov­el­ing when it was still snow­ing. Like this, he would say, show­ing me and my lit­tle broth­er how you could just plow the blade down a straight line the whole way and not have to do any heavy lift­ing, which you would if you wait­ed. There was one bent met­al snow shov­el in back of her car­port. It would do. The work was quick and good for the blood flow and re­mind­ed me of the times be­fore I used to lie and cheat and steal and burn bridges. When I was done, it was full dark and the snow had turned or­ange un­der the street­light and my face ran with the melt­ed flakes.

I went in­side to warm up with Gladys’s brandy. I’d al­ready poured her the one at lunch, so I just grabbed that and went back in­to her bed­room and lay down and took a big gulp. It flushed through me all the way to those far ends still nip­ping from the cold. “Gladys,” I said, “I hope you don’t mind I’m in your bed­room.” It seemed right to ac­knowl­edge the fact. “I hope you don’t mind I’m in your bed.” The smell of moth­balls and ladies’ per­fume rose from the pil­lows and bed­spread, which made it seem like a sign that it was okay. I wrapped the sides of the bed­spread and blan­ket and top sheet around my chest, a coc­coon in re­verse order.

At mid­night, when I woke up, I turned on the bed­side lamp, but that didn’t feel right, and I want­ed every­thing to be per­fect. So I turned off the lamp and got up and flipped the bath­room switch across the hall, and then lay back down un­der the ob­long of light it threw on­to Gladys’s bed. She had a charg­ing phone with gi­ant but­tons glow­ing green next to an alarm clock with gi­ant num­bers glow­ing blue. I pulled the crin­kled in­fo sheet from my coat pock­et and held it at just the right an­gle to the light so I could read it. Emer­gency con­tacts: Harold Reimer, Shirley Kohlbeck, Bri­an­na Kohlbeck-Schroed­er. And with the hol­i­days com­ing up, and they hadn’t called. Would it have killed them to give a rat’s ass and pick up the tele­phone, just once. I crushed the pa­per in one cold hand and let it drop to the car­pet, then rat­tled a deep sigh.

The flick­er of an or­ange snowflake caught my eye out the win­dow. Its wink seemed filled with right­eous anger and for­give­ness and sol­i­dar­i­ty: Gladys, telling me what I knew need­ed to be done.

“Gladys, are you sure you want me to do this?” I asked her. One more soli­tary, drift­ing, glow­ing snowflake, which I had to con­sid­er a sign. She was be­ing brave for me.

“I’m ready too,” I said. With a met­al cluck, I took the hand­set from its perch in the charg­er, dragged in an­oth­er slow breath, and one by one di­aled all the old phone num­bers I still knew by heart.

Filed under Fiction on July 25th, 2009

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Reader Comments

Jessie Sehmer wrote:

I re­al­ly en­joyed this sto­ry, even though the main char­ac­ter was weird­ly mor­bid, he did­n’t seem like a bad guy, al­though I kept wait­ing for him to do some­thing terrible.
Thanks Wade

Mar Bowan wrote:

Thought it was re­al­ly fun­ny in a dark-hu­mor way. Was­n’t ready for that ending.

Ryan Pederson wrote:

Heavy. Great sto­ry, Wade.

paul wrote:

Steven went by the name of Kel­ly Palamino in Tim San­dlin’s Sex and Sun­sets. he’s an al­right guy de­spite a few se­mi se­vere char­ac­ter flaws.
ha­ha great sto­ry, con­grats wade!

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