Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Louella Learns the Limits of Medicare

It was 10:05, and there were six other people in the doctor's waiting room when Louella signed in for her father, filled out the paperwork and provided her father's Medicare information. Looks like it's going to be hurry-up-and-wait today, she thought, looking around for some decent magazines to read. She tossed aside Golf and Travel, Woodworker and Rod and Gun, digging for a recent People or Glamour. Looks like this doctor subscribes to what he likes, she thought, not what his patients like. Gets that tax write-off and we get bumpkus. She settled next to her father on a black vinyl chair and patted him on his arm. "Let's snooze a little while we wait, okay?" "Sure thing, Lou! You don't have to tell me twice to take a nap!"

A half hour passed before the receptionist called Louella up to her little window. "You know your Dad only has Part A, don't you?" she whispered. "What's that mean—'Only has Part A'?" The receptionist looked uncomfortable. "Well, it means this consultation won't be paid for by Medicare." "It won't? Why not?" "Because you need Part B coverage for that. Then you only have to pay 20 percent for an office visit. Well, except for the first $135 in a year, but don't let me confuse you!" "Well, how do you get this Part B?" "It's something your Dad should have signed up for when he was 65," she said. "He might still be able to sign up for it, but it'll probably cost extra, and they can exclude pre-existing conditions."

"Hold on a minute!" said Louella. She went over to her dozing father and nudged him awake. "Dad!" she said. "They're saying you don't have Part B Medicare! Is that right?"

"Sure, that's right! Don't have Part B for the same reason I didn't get any whatchacall gap policy. Because I can't afford ’em, that's why. That Part B was gonna nick nearly a hundred dollars out of my Social Security every month, and the gap stuff was going to cost more than a hundred more. I figured if I needed to have a doctor's office visit or whatever, I'd just pay as I go. Be cheaper, seein' as how I never need to see a doctor!"

Louella felt a cold knot form in her stomach. "Oh, Dad! I wished you'd told me! Candy and I would've helped you out to pay the extra!"

"You sayin' we have a problem?"

"Not yet, but we could if this thing today is serious," said Louella. "Let's sure hope it's not!" She went back to the receptionist and took out her checkbook. "How much for today's visit?"

"That'll be $150 for today," she responded. "That's not counting any extras like tests and medicines and all." She cocked her head. "He does have Part D, right?" Louella flipped through the cards in her father's wallet and found nothing about Part D. She shrugged. The receptionist said, "I'll check online." She clicked some keys and said, "Nope, he didn't sign up. Sorry." "Well, can he still get it?" asked Louella. "Well, he might be able to," said the receptionist. "That's better than for that supplemental gap insurance—they might not take him at all now. They don't have to insure everybody with no questions asked, see, except in the three months before and after you're 65. Listen, you need to talk to the hospital social worker about this. Maybe something can be worked out. It's really complicated. If you choose the wrong Part D or supplemental plan you can be in real hot water real fast. I'm just telling you because we went through this with my grandmother, and she lost her house."

The receptionist glanced behind her, then said in a conspiratorial voice, "Look, the best thing would probably be for the doctor to put your dad directly in the hospital right away. Then your Part A might cover you pretty much, except for that deductible."

"Deductible for being put in the hospital?" Louella asked, numb. "How much is that?"

The receptionist, whose name Louella finally noticed was Ernestine, rolled her eyes. "That's going to be a little over a thousand dollars," she said, nodding sadly. "And honey, that's not going to include TV or telephone, either!"

Candy should have looked into this! Louella fumed. She lives with Dad and should have been paying better attention! She hastily wrote out the $150 check and handed it through the window. She thanked Ernestine, stuffed the receipt into her handbag and sat back down with her father. He was tapping his right foot and humming under his breath. Oh no! thought Louella. He heard everything we said!

A few minutes later they were called to see the doctor.


Thursday, April 30, 2009

Louella Tries To Muzzle Dun & Bradstreet

Louella tossed her battered Coach handback on the sofa in her condo and kicked off her orthopedic shoes. What a day! she thought. Six hours on my feet at the cash register, with a 15-minute break. Hardly matters that I've got these special nurse shoes. I can't believe I'm wearing these boats!
She thought about getting some white wine from the refrigerator, but her throbbing feet demanded attention first. She rubbed them hard. I really do have to get myself some other kind of job, she thought, but I really like the mindlessness of this one. She felt her cramped toes loosen up. "Aaaaah!" she said aloud. A few minutes later, she was back on the sofa with her chilled wine. Time for Oprah and a nap! she exulted.
Just as she was sinking into slumber, her land line phone rang. It took three rings before Louella was alert enough to answer it. She glanced at the caller ID, saw it was an 800 number, and thought hard about not answering. Well, it's already disturbed me anyhow, so I may as well see what it's about, she thought. "Hello?" she snapped.
"Hello," said a chipper male recorded voice. "We've got easy and simple credit solutions for you. Did you know there are government programs that can...." The voice droned on. There was no way to say you're on the Do Not Call Registry. Louella retaliated by letting the message continue until the end. Time is money, she thought grimly. Let them pay more for bothering me! I am so sick of these interruptions! she fumed. I'm going to re-register online to stop them. 
She opened her laptop and went to My number's registered, all right! she thought. So how come these calls are getting through?
While online, she did what she often did: searched her own name using Google. Still eight mentions, she thought with a little satisfaction. Bet that's more than most grocery clerks have! She looked through them again and realized there was still one for Dun & Bradstreet. Now, why in the world is my name listed with them? she wondered for the first time. I never thought much about it, but maybe that has something to do with the calls. 
Tooling her way through the Dun & Bradstreet website, she found that her long-ago consulting firm was still listed as being an active business. Holy cow! she thought. I incorporated that eight years ago when I was unemployed the second or third time! The profile gave her home phone number. I'm going to fix this right away! she thought, finding her way to a phone number for a conversation with a human at Dun & Bradstreet. Wonder how long they'll be offering that? she mused.
A young woman answered on the seventh ring. Louella explained the problem and asked to be de-listed from Dun & Bradstreet's database. "I think this is where the telemarketers are getting my number, and I just do not want those calls," she said. "I don't publish my number anywhere."
"Ma'am, your number is part of a legal record, and Dun and Bradstreet isn't able to change that record."
"Well, how can I get my record taken off Dun and Bradstreet completely, just for starters? I never did do business using that number."
"Ma'am, there's nothing we can do. Your number is all over the place, not just with us. You'd have to file a formal affadavit to say you're completely out of business before we could make any change."
"But why? I never asked to be included in your database in the first place. It can't be hard to take me off—just a keystroke or two!"
"Ma'am, listen to me. We don't have anything to do with your records. We can't change them."
"But right here on your website it allows me to alter the profile. It just forces me to include a phone number, and I don't want to do that."
"I repeat, ma'am--you're not listening to me!—Dun and Bradstreet has nothing to do with that. Other companies that want to do business with you need that information, and so do people who might want to extend you credit."
"But I don't want any of that! This is my home number, and it's on the Do Not Call Registry, but apparently it's considered a business phone by people who use your database. I'm so sick of the telemarketing calls I could scream!" Louella tried to keep her voice calm, but it was getting difficult.
"Ma'am, calm down," said the woman on the other end of the line. "Please listen to me. We can't do anything to help you. You're in the official business records."
"But what about those calls? It's unbearable. Do I have to change my phone number? That would be a nuisance, and then somebody else who might get my number someday would be getting those stupid calls."
"Ma'am, I repeat: we publish your number, and so do a lot of other companies. There's nothing we can do."
"Well, there's no benefit to me to be on your list," snapped Louella. A light bulb went off. "I guess Dun and Bradstreet sells my information, doesn't it?"
"Yes, it does. It's a service we provide."
"So you profit from giving out my phone number?"
"We're not the only ones doing it, ma'am. It's a service."
"Well, it's not a service to me," said Louella. "It's a dis-service. I can't believe you let this happen without giving people a chance to get off your list."
"Ma'am, I have to end this call now," said the woman. There was a click, then silence on the other end of the line.
Louella was trembling with rage. I can't believe it! Those dirtbags! Selling my information and causing me pain—and they don't even care! First thing tomorrow, I'm going to cancel my landline phone and get one of those throwaway cell phones.
The phone rang again. It was her father. "Hi Dad!" she said as civilly as she could manage.
"What's the matter, Lou?" he asked. "Bad day?"
"Not until I got home. Stupid telemarketing call just when I was starting to nap."
"Know whatcha mean! Those whatchacall charity people keep calling me—they can do that even if you're on that whatchacall registration thing not to get calls. And my bank keeps calling. Can't hardly get a nap myself, and these days I really need a nap."
"So what's up, Dad?"
"I have to go to the doctor again for another test," he said. "Tomorrow. They say it has to be done real soon."
"But I'm working tomorrow! Can't Candy take you?"
"Aw, you know Candy. She never knows where she'll be or what she'll be doin'. I thought maybe you'd be able to arrange it." Louella could hear the disappointment and fear in his voice.
"What time tomorrow?"
His voice brightened. "It's at ten o'clock. You think you can do it?"
"I don't know, Dad. I'll have to call my manager right away—he leaves in a few minutes. Maybe I can trade time with somebody. I'll have to hang up now, okay? I'll call you right back." 
"Okay. I'm waiting right here," said her father.
Louella dialed her work number. How in the world am I going to be able to get away from this phone? She wondered. Everybody I want to hear from has this number too.
Her boss picked up. "Yo, Louella! What's up?"
It took some doing, but Louella got him to agree to let her work later in the day. She could tell she'd have some payback to do for the favor.
If I get up real early tomorrow, before I get Dad, I can get this line disconnected. And then after I take him home, I'll get one of those throw-aways. The idea that nobody would be able to reach her by phone until she gave out the new number suddenly made her giddy with relief. Tomorrow can't come fast enough, she thought, as she took the receiver off the hook and stretched out on her sofa.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Louella Considers the Meaning of 'Torture'

Helen at the next cash register was wiping down the conveyor belt while waiting for the next customer. Louella looked her over with a critical eye. I sure hope somebody makes me quit before I go out in public looking like such an old hag! she thought. But that's mean to even think that! I can't believe that thought even crossed my mind! I mean, I might have to work until I'm seventy years old too—no way I'll be able to retire earlier unless I win the Lottery again. As if to apologize for her thoughts, Louella finished up with her customer (organic juice, pepperoni pizza, barbecue potato chips, bologna). Bet customers think we don't notice what they buy, thought Louella. But we'd go nuts if we didn't have that distraction!).
"How's your arthritis?" she asked Helen, who was stiffly bending her back upright.
"Comes and goes," said Helen cheerfully. "Not much use complaining about it." She adjusted the device on her right wrist, designed to prevent carpal tunnel problems. 
"Don't you ever think it'd be nice not to have to come to work any more?" asked Louella, as she eyed another customer approaching her station. Good, he wants to do the self-checkout, she thought. Amazing that so many people haven't realized they're doing our work for free. Slavery isn't dead!
Helen gave Louella a look. "What? You think I'm too old to be here, is that what you're saying?"
Louella was taken aback. She wasn't accustomed to older people giving backtalk. "No, no. I don't mean anything about age. I just mean, don't you just wish—"
"Wishing don't make it so!" snapped Helen. "That's what my granddaddy always used to say, and he was right. You have to deal with what is, and stop any foolish wishful thinking."
Louella didn't know what to say next. Luckily a woman was unloading groceries onto Louella's conveyer belt. I notice Miss High and Mighty usually gets passed over for me when customers have to choose between us, she thought with annoyance and a little satisfaction, too. "How are you today?" she asked the customer.
"Could be better," said the woman. "I'm just so upset."
"Upset? Is something the matter here at the store? Because if you want, I could call the manager—"
"No, no," said the woman, making direct eye contact with Louella, something Louella avoided. She felt exposed. Uh oh, now I've gone and done it! I've invited something personal to be said! Louella steeled herself for what was to come. 
"I'm just so upset about this torture issue! I want to see somebody get punished for what was done in those Iraq prisons. I'm just sick about it, is all. I just heard another news report about it on the radio on my way over here. Public radio—not that they're telling us that much news these days, but at least it's better than TV."
"Yes, ma'am," said Louella, trying to stifle the woman. She might need antidepressants, she thought. She really does look kind of miserable.
The woman asked, "Have you complained to your congressperson about it? Because we all have to do that, you know."
Louella gulped. "Well, I haven't thought all that much about it, to tell you the truth," she evaded, scanning a package of fig newtons and reaching for the low-sodium soup cans, bagging as she went.
"Well, get to know about it!" snapped the woman. "It's tiresome to live in a country where so many people just don't seem to care about what's happening. You're paying taxes. Do you like it that your money's going for things like torturing people who haven't even been charged with a crime?"
"No ma'am—now that you put it that way, I see your point. Will this be cash or charge?"
"Charge," said the woman, slashing her credit card through the slot. Louella glanced at the woman's receipt. "You saved eight dollars and thirty-one cents on your order today," she said, smiling her best smile.
The woman snatched the receipt. "That was my plan," she said, as she stuffed it into one of the shopping bags she'd brought from home. She looked at Louella again. "You look like someone who can think," she said. "I suggest you do that." She pushed her cart away.
"Well, that was nice," said Helen. "Glad she didn't talk to me. I'd've told her what I think about that torture business. I'm all for it if it keeps those terrorists out of this country!"
Louella felt her stomach pitch. For the thousandth time, she thought, What in the world am I doing working in this place with people like her?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Louella Can't Find The Sun

Louella wandered through the condo lobby, trying not to be too obvious as she foraged for a discarded issue of the morning paper. She spotted on on a low table by a fake Norfolk pine. The Baltimore Sun, pitifully thin, was folded to the obituary section. Well now, that's appropriate, thought Louella, running her polished nail across the lines of type telling the life story of someone she didn't know. The obits are the only real news in here any more.
She tucked the paper under her arm while pretending to dust the plant, in case anyone was looking. She looked around. The concierge was joking with the mailman. Louella walked to the elevator and pushed the button for her floor. I guess I really should subscribe to this again, she thought. It's our hometown paper, but really, it's got nothing much in it. Glad I never went into journalism—what a loser career!
She emerged from the elevator and tottered on three-inch heels to her door and let herself in. I think this will be the last job interview I go out on, she thought, kicking off the expensive torture devices and wriggling her toes on the white carpet. I mean, what's the point? The pain didn't go away. The arches were cramped. Oh no, she thought. I'd better not need to go see a podiatrist! She kicked herself again, metaphorically speaking, for not having medical insurance. But then she reminded herself that it probably wouldn't cover a podiatrist anyway. There's no way to win in this society any more, she thought, flipping the paper and her purse onto the sofa and walking in circles to work out the cramps. Except for winning the Lottery.
Pouring a glass of cheap white wine from the refrigerator, she limped back to the sofa, rummaged in her handbag, and produced her Lottery ticket stub. Then she flipped through the Sun to find the winning numbers from the day before. Rats! she thought. Another loser! Maybe I'll start buying five a day instead of one. I mean, I hit it once. Some people hit more than that. Why not me?
It was six o'clock. She reached for the TV remote and turned on the news. She watched for a couple of minutes, then clicked it off. Losers! she thought.
Her cell phone sang its little tune. She glanced at the Caller ID and saw that it was her father. She sighed, let it ring a couple more times for effect, and answered. "Hi, Dad!"
"Lou, why d'ya have to do that—why d'ya have to take away my thunder? Why can't ya let me surprise you, let me say, 'Hi, Lou!' first?"
It was a familiar complaint. "Daaaaad," she scolded. "Get with the program. If I didn't know it was you, I might not answer the phone."
"Humph! Ya might not answer it if ya know it's me, too! Think I haven't figured it out, huh? I wasn't born yesterday, got that?"
He's right about that, thought Louella with a twinge of guilt. "Well, all right then, Dad. What's up?"
"Well, you remember when I had that little medical thing happen last—what was it, in September?"
"Yes, Dad—how could I forget? It scared me to death!"
"Well, it's back."
"The bleeding's back. In your urine."
"Yeah. I didn't know what to do. I mean, it weren't nothin' before, so I thought maybe I should ignore it and it'd go away, but it's still there. Coupla weeks now."
"Do you have any of those antibiotics left from before, Dad?"
"Hey, now—I followed their directions last time, and took ’em all."
"Oh." Rats—he'll need a new prescription. Good thing it's only March, and he's not in the donut hole yet. "Well, okay, then. Have you called that doctor to renew?"
"Thought you could handle it for me, Lou. I might not understand what she tells me on the phone. You know—my bad hearing and all!"
This caretaking thing is really getting to be a drag, thought Louella. "Okay, Dad, let me give the doctor a call and see what she says, and I'll get the prescription for you if she says that's what you need."
"Thanks, Lou! Don't know what I'd do without ya!" They hung up, and Louella called the doctor's office.
"I'm sorry," said the receptionist, "but if you need a prescription refill, your Dad will have to come in  to see the doctor."
"But why? It's the same problem as before!"
"Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't," said the receptionist. "But no matter what, that's the new rule. We can't afford to take these kind of calls for free any more. We need to charge you for the visit."
Louella took a deep breath, trying not to let her annoyance show in her voice. "Well, then, how soon can we come in?"
"Let me see.....okay, we have an opening in three weeks, at 3 o'clock on the 31st. Is that good for you?"
When is a doctor's time frame ever good for me? Louella groused inwardly. "That'll be fine," she said. "We'll see you then."
She hung up. This had better not be something worse than an infection this time. Because if it is, Dad will have lost three months of potential treatment time.
She considered whether she should just drive across town to pick up her Dad and take him to the E.R. at Hopkins. The ploy had worked the last time. She picked up the Sun and located the TV listings for the night. "E.R." was on. What a coincidence, she thought. I don't want to miss that. Dad can wait another day. I'm beat.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Louella Gets an Economics Lesson

Louella settled into a stiff chair in the car dealer's service waiting room. The television up high in the corner was blaring morning news. Louella eyed the Talking Heads with disdain. It's always the same drivel, she thought, carefully balancing the styrofoam cup of dealer-special extra-weak coffee on the narrow windowsill so she could open the romance novel she'd brought along to pass the time. If they show Sarah Palin one more time, I think I'll scream! As if on cue, Palin appeared, discussing the clothes she'd worn during the presidential campaign and claiming yet again that she'd had nothing to do with it. Sure, right, thought Louella, tuning out.

Across from her was a middle-aged black man, staring at the TV with a bemused expression. On the other window wall sat a pink-faced elderly woman, busily knitting a multicolored scarf. All three of them settled into a reverie. Then a fourth person strode in, a woman who looked like she might be a Talking Head on TV herself, with clothes Louella estimated as being worthy of Sarah Palin on the campaign trail. The woman took a seat, crossed her very good legs, and folded her arms impatiently as she watched the TV anchorwoman in silence. She gave an Al Gore-style sigh that made the others turn toward her.

"Do you all know the real story about why the economy got so bad so fast?" she demanded. The others shrugged, afraid to attempt an answer. "You want me to tell you?" They nodded in unison. Might be more interesting than the TV, Louella thought. On the other hand, this woman might be a nut.

"Do you all have mortgages?" she asked. They all nodded. "And do you remember how much interest you paid when you first started the payments?"

"Oh, yeah," drawled the man. "I sure do remember that! Couldn't believe it. It was about every penny for interest." 

"Right!" said their instructor. "It's like a hundred percent interest you're paying for the first three years or so. You can see why they like to make mortgage loans, can't you?"

Nods all around. This woman has to be a teacher, thought Louella. Or else she sells something really smarmy.

"Okay—just bear with me now. Think back to 9/11, when the economy tanked. I want you to imagine you're in a board room at some big bank. You've got these executives all worried about the economy, looking for a sure thing that'll make a lot of money, but with little or no risk. I'm thinking their coversation went like this: 'You know, those first few years on a mortgage make nearly a hundred percent interest, and there's hardly any risk to making the loans because you've got the mortgaged property as collateral. Plus if you're mortgaging houses, the value goes up. So even if somebody defaults in a few years and you have to take it back, you're way ahead because you got all that money, and now you have the asset back and you can sell it for more than it sold for when you made the loan to start with.'"

The woman looked at each of them in turn. "Sound good to you?" Louella, intimidated, blurted, "Sounds too good to be true, if you ask me." The other woman kept her head down, knitting furiously. The man looked eager to know more. "Okay," said the woman. "Now you've got somebody in that board room who says, 'But hold on! Just about everybody who qualifies for a mortgage has already got one, and they've refinanced to boot.' And another guy chimes in and says, 'Well, how about this? We qualify the next tier down—the people who normally wouldn't qualify. We give them whatever interest terms it takes to move them in, so we can get those 100% percent interest payments flowing in. When the mortgage gets recalibrated in a couple of years, they might not be able to keep up with the payments, but that wouldn't matter to us because we'd get the properties back and could re-sell them for more than the first time. It's win-win!'"

"Damn!" said the man. "I believe that's likely just how they went and did this thing!" The knitting woman looked up, transfixed. "I do believe you could be right," she said breathily.

Louella said, "Hold on! You're not saying these finance people would do something like that, knowing they might be putting people out of their houses and ruining their credit, are you?"

The woman rolled her eyes. "Of course they would! What planet are you living on?" Louella began to feel hostile.

The woman was on a roll now, and didn't pick up on Louella's body language. "So then some other guy speaks up and says 'Hold on, now! This sounds real good, but we'd be underwriting risky loans here. It's not responsible. Subprimes have a bad track record. To do this, we'll have to share the risk.' And everybody around the table nods. The first guy says, 'We could mix a whole lot of the loans together, so the better risks would make up for the bad ones, and then we could slice it up into shares and sell the shares.' And another person says, 'And you know what? We can get insurance to make the deals extra safe. I bet AIG will do it, especially because we'd be lowering the risk by packaging the loans. It would be a lot like how they mix together hamburger meat for the fast food joints. It could be from anywhere, but in the end it all looks alike.' And so they decide to make these deals, and the rest is history."

The woman smoothed her snug skirt over her knees and gave her audience a brilliant whitened-teeth smile. "What do you think?" she asked.

"Sounds right to me," said the man. "I think I understand this stuff for the first time.I'm going to have to remember all this to tell my co-workers at the post office."

"I think it's awful," said the older woman. "Any fool could've told them that house prices don't always go up. I remember back when you didn't expect house prices to increase—houses depreciated like cars. Those investment people should go to prison. I'm really mad about those golden parachute things."

Louella started to say something that she hoped would sound smart, but just then the service manager came in the waiting room. "Miss Pryzbylewski?" She nodded. "Your Miata is ready. No repairs needed." Louella nodded at the others, collected her things, tossed her cold coffee, and followed the manager to his office. Thank God! I didn't want to give that woman the satisfaction of knowing I agreed with her, she groused. Then, as she paid her bill and unlocked her car to drive away, she wondered, That really was a cool explanation. Who do I know who'd be interested in it? She drove off. Can't think of anybody who'd care. Besides, it's too late. Suddenly Louella felt very sad.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Louella Reads the Baltimore Sun

Sipping the black coffee that served as her entire breakfast, Louella paged through the Monday, September 22 issue of The Baltimore Sun. Good grief! she thought, looking for news. This thing isn't worth a nickel, let alone seventy-five cents! Good thing I didn't have to pay for it at all. Her neighbor down the hall was on vacation, and in return for watering his plants, Louella was told to keep his newspapers.

I mean, I took Journalism 101 back at Towson State, she thought. Sports go in the back. Everybody knows that! What's with this huge picture of the Ravens game, and a stupid sports opinion column? I bet eighty percent of their readers could care less about football, or at least they wouldn't think it should be on the front page, unless maybe the stadium collapsed or something.

She decided to analyse the whole front section. She choked on her coffee when she read the main news story's headline: "Police probe Harris' killing." Like they wouldn't investigate a murder! she thought. That's like reporting 'Dog bites man"! Below that story was something about the pros and cons of having slot machines in Western Maryland. Boy, is that ever a retread! she marveled. Where in blazes is there anything about the financial crisis? For crying out loud, that's what people are really interested in! She glanced at the "Summary of the News" box underneath the large full-color vignetted photo of the sports columnist. Who cares what he looks like? fumed Louella, as she flipped back toward page 8 for the story called "Paulson Pushes Bailout."

She glanced at the pages in between. Another columnist on page two. Waste of prime news real estate. Two big page-three stories about closing some lanes of the expressway for a few hours to allow for biking and walking, and about the city public schools' chief wanting judicial credit for progress made in special education. Local stories! realized Louella. They used to have a local section for stuff like this. I can't imagine people in Hagerstown will want to read a story about the city schools, even if it does have a headline across the entire page. Page four was "regional" news, with brief tidbits except for a one-column story about Constellation Energy getting its first billion dollars from Buffett's buyout. Why isn't this on the front page? Louella marveled. Everybody's going to be affected by this. Doesn't the Sun have editors any more? She thought about applying, but realized there'd be no chance of getting such a job. They've already laid off practically everybody but these columnists, she thought. That must be why they feature them like this.

She flicked her eyes over the page five story—another column, this one about suggestions to improve traffic flow on I-70. This Michael Dresser columnist guy, he must be pretty ugly, she thought. No picture! Or maybe there was no room for his picture because of this Crime Blotter thing next to his column. She ignored it. Crime happens, she thought. Why focus on it? But come to think of it, didn't the Sun make a big deal about how many murders Baltimore had so far in the year? Used to treat that like it was some kind of important sports score. She decided to make a point of checking for that homicide box as she went through the paper.

Page six featured four pictures supposedly giving a flavor of what had happened in the past 24 hours. Nice trick to try to cover the whole world in a half a page, Louella snarked to herself. Her eyes strayed to the very compressed "people and entertainment" section below the picture. Hmmm, she mused. Still don't have a clue about the financial meltdown, but at least I know what actors are having birthdays today, and which films are making big box office money! She read the tidbits about celebrity, thinking, I should have my head examined for even looking at this drivel. Page seven gave huge play to the Emmy Awards, with a sidebar story on what celebrities wore to the Emmy Awards ceremony.

Finally Louella flipped to page eight. Imagine! A whole page devoted to "Nation & World"! she thought. Pakistan bombing—guess that's worthy. Below that story there was a picture of the hairless Treasury Secretary with his mouth open. Louella was surprised; the headline above his picture read, "Democrats want help for homeowners." The subhead, she realized, should have been the headline: "Paulson is seeking quick approval of 'clean' $700 billion rescue plan for Wall Street." What's the story here? wondered Louella. Is it about Paulson's plan, or about what Democrats and Republicans have to say about it? This is dumb. She scanned the newsbriefs about child porn, Chinese children getting sick from tainted milk, South African president resigning, new government forms in Israel, blown tire on jet blamed for crash, panel wants SAT, ACT testing abolished. What a mixed bag, thought Louella. Some of these things should be on page one!

Then page nine grabbed her eye. The biggest headline she'd seen so far in the news section proclaimed, "A blast by McCain." What the?? McCain's always blasting something. What's newsworthy about that? Louella read the subhead, looking for context. "Republican says Obama shows a pattern of weak leadership on Iraq and economy." What the hell is this? thought Louella, who favored Obama. Does this writer Paul West get paid by the McCain campaign to be a shill for them or what? She read the article. Good grief! What do you know! It really is a news story after all. And it balances McCain and Obama quotes and viewpoints. Why in the world would an editor completely mislabel a decent story like this? Maybe the headline writer working on the weekend had an axe to grind. Bet this guy West is pissed off!

The adjacent story, "Palin pick aided Obama," reported that the Obama campaign raised lots of money after Palin was chosen as McCain's running mate. Duh! thought Louella.

Onward Louella went. Page ten, obituaries. Page 11, jumps on the two front page news stories about slots-in-Western-Maryland and robbers-sought-in-killing. Page 12 and 13, letters, editorials, two op-ed stories, and syndicated cartoons. Geez! thought Louella. I can remember when The Sun had its own cartoonists! Now they can't even supply enough reporters, photographers and editors.

She turned to the back page. Oh my God! More about what Ravens fans wear, from that idiot front page column. The banner headline read, "Midlife crisis? Try the goofy attire." Louella felt like gagging. Like they couldn't give this much space to the new government in Israel? I mean, come on! Who are they publishing this rag for? Not me—even a grocery store clerk like me can't find any news in this thing! 

Louella sipped the last of her coffee and carried the Sun to her recycling box and dropped it in without bothering to look at the Sports and You sections. They ought to pay me for the trouble of recycling this! she thought, eyes flinty. What a waste of trees!


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Louella Gets a Reprieve

Louella's mouth felt dry, and she headed to the kitchen for a glass of water. Can't stay in the same room with my own sister, she fumed. She thinks she can just blow this burg and go to California and leave me holding the bag for Dad, huh? Louella slammed the refrigerator door and tossed ice cubes in a glass she'd picked up from the dishrack. Ick! she thought. Looks like it's never been washed with soap and water! She looked in a cabinet for a cleaner glass and found that all the dishes and glassware looked dingy. Then she held her hair back from her face and put her mouth under running water from the faucet.

Returning to the living room, Candy looked at Louella warily. "Sorry if I sounded like I wouldn't be watching your back with Dad," she hazarded. "But I really have been thinking about going to California, and now might be the right time. I'm not getting any younger, ya know."

"Younger? What planet are you on?" snapped Louella. "You're forty-eight big ones, Candy. Time you grew up!"

"Whoa, girl! Looks like menopause is getting the best of you! It's my life, okay? I can decide where to live. There's nothing to keep me here in this dump!"

"How about the free rent, huh? That's a good reason to stay in this so-called dump! And it wouldn't be such a dump if you cleaned it once in a while! I think the health department would be interested in having a look at the glasses in the kitchen!"

"Well, Dad needs something to do, Lou," Candy snapped. "If I do simple things like wash the dishes, he'll start feeling useless."

"Has it occurred to you that he can't see very well? And he can't read any more, have you noticed that? And I think he listens to the TV more than he actually watches it. You ought to be paying more attention!"

"So what are you now? A doctor? Dad's doing fine for his age, what with his diabetes and hypertension and all."

"Look, Dad's only sixty-eight! That's not so old these days. He should have a better quality of life than he's got. And now he might be—"

"—Dying? Come on, Lou, you're such an alarmist! Dad's going to be all right. You'll see!"

"Wishing don't make it so—remember that's what Mom used to tell us? But I sure do hope Dad's going to be okay, because I'm not in the mood to help you out. I've bailed you and Mason out of so many scrapes, and I think it's time I got a life of my own and let you take charge of Dad."

"Maybe I would have before if you hadn't kept showing up and poking your nose in our business!" Candy thumped the sofa cushion hard, and picked at something between her front teeth.

"I've just about had it with your attitude!" hissed Louella. "Did I mention to you that the reason I didn't ever move away was because I was worried about all of you?"

"Who asked you to stick around?" snapped Candy. "We can get along perfectly well without you. Just give us a chance, and we'll show you!"

The phone rang. It was between them on a side table, and neither reached for it at first. Finally Louella picked up the receiver. "Pryzbylewski residence."

"Is this Louella, daughter of Anton?" 

"Yes, this is she." Candy groaned at her sister's correct grammar, like she always did.

"This is Doctor Halloway. I just wanted to let you know that your Dad's ready to come home. We did a couple of tests, and it turns out he has cystitis without the usual symptoms." 

"Oooh! I'm so glad!" Louella sank into a chair. Now I can think about moving to California myself, she realized. Forget about running for the Baltimore City Council! I want out of this place!


Monday, September 8, 2008

Louella Breaks the News

Once her father was settled in his hospital room awaiting tests, Louella headed back to the family rowhouse overlooking Patterson Park to gather some of his things. She crept along in her venerable dark green Miata. Oh my God! she thought. Suppose somebody runs a red light and hits me? Suppose I'm distracted by all this and cause an accident? She felt like smacking herself to stop the panic. It's only a few blocks, she told herself. Get a grip! People get cancer every day—it's no big deal! Hot tears came and she batted them away.

Finally she got back to the house, eased into a parking space only three doors down, and went up the white marble steps and unlocked the door. There was her older sister Candy, lounging in front of the TV in her underwear, eating a bowl of cereal. "Hi, Lou," she said, not taking her eyes off the screen. "Where's dad? You guys were gone for a long while—I was beginning to get worried."

Louella resisted her usual impulse to be sarcastic. "He's been admitted to Hopkins," she blurted. "They think he might have bladder cancer."

"You're kidding me, right?" said Candy, finally looking at Louella. "He's been fine—never sick a day. It's probably nothing. You're such a worrier!"

"Well, it would be great if you were right," said Louella, "but it has to be checked. I've come to get together all Dad's meds, and make lists of his usual doctors, stuff like that. Can you help me out?"

"You kidding me? We might share the house, but I never go near Dad's things. You go ahead and do it—you're better at organizing than I am, you know that."

And you're better at running away from responsibility, thought Louella, who surprised herself by snapping,"You know, Candy, I can't do everything, and I don't want to do everything. You live here for free, and he's your father too, and I have to go back to work on Monday, so you're going to have to pull your weight on this."

Candy's blue eyes grew wide with shock. "All right, all right. Don't have a cow. I'll help. Just tell me what to do. I've never seen you this way before. You going through the change or something?"

"This has nothing to do with that," retorted Louella. "I'm just not going to handle this alone. This sounds like it could be really hard, and you know how squeamish I am."

"I'm squeamish too! Remember how I always got Mom to change Mason's diapers?"

"Oh, yeah, I remember. You really took advantage of Mom. She was a softie and you knew it. But this time one of us might have to help Dad change his diapers or empty his bags of urine, and I don't want that person to be me. You're here most of the time and I'm not, so the way I see it, this is going to be more on you than on me."

"I can't believe this!" said Candy, adding a little too quickly, "I think I must've forgotten to tell you that I've been thinking about moving to San Diego."

"Oh no, you don't!" said Louella. "You're staying right here and you're going to take primary responsibility, and that's that." She said it as forcefully as she could, but deep down she felt fear.


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Louella Looks Down the Barrel of a Gun

Louella was roused from a fitful sleep by noises in the kitchen below her girlhood bedroom. She knew it wasn't her sister Candy, in the adjacent tiny bedroom, who would be sleeping until noon after tending bar late. Must be Dad already, thought Louella, checking her Swatch watch. Only six o'clock. Geez! She remembered she'd said she'd take her father to the emergency room because of his disturbing symptoms. Lying there, she began to think more clearly. This isn't going to be treated like an emergency, she realized. They'll probably have us wait for hours while they deal with the real emergencies. Maybe we should just go see a doctor.

Pulling on the thick white terry robe that bulked out her frail physique, Louella touched up her enhanced auburn curls and headed downstairs. "Glad you're up, Lou!" said her father in too hearty a voice. "Nice day today, they say! Here, have some coffee!" He put a steaming mug in front of her, knowing she never ate breakfast, and settled across from her with a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon and buttered toast. Louella resisted commenting that this wasn't what he should be eating. He might be really sick, she thought. Why spoil what might be his last good day? From the living room, she could hear the TV weatherman promising good weather.

"Dad, I've been thinking that we ought to just go to a urologist for a checkup. The waiting time at the E.R. might be really long."

"Hell, it can't be as long a wait as what it would be to get an appointment at the doctor's office! Last time I went to see Dr. Kumara it took three months to get in."

"Well, maybe you'll get in faster if you explain the symptoms."

"What—you sayin' I might have something really wrong?"

"Well, I thought I made that pretty clear by suggesting the E.R. last night."

"Hey, it's just some infection or something. I'll just mix me up the usual fix, and it'll be fine."

"The 'usual fix'? What's that?"

"Something your mother used to do when she had problems down there. You mix a couple of tablespoons of baking soda into a cup of warm water and swill it down."

"That's awful!" said Louella, shuddering. "I can't believe you'd do that."

"Hey, listen—back in those days we sometimes didn't have health insurance, and didn't have extra money for a doctor, so you did what you had to do."

"Well, now you have Medicare, so you can get the treatment you need, and get a professional look-over."

Her father gave her a dour look. "You seem to think Medicare's the be-all and end-all, Lou. Not so. I've got me the Part A, and they deduct for Part B, but I can't afford the whatchacall 'gap insurance,' so I still get bills I have to pay. Plus which I've already maxed out my Part D drug assistance for all that hypertension and cholesterol business, and now I'm in that doughnut thing where I have to pay it all. I hate to lay things out to you this way, but I think you need to know my situation before you get on your high horse about me 'going to the doctor.' Sometimes there's more pain in paying the bills, see? Do you know how much you have to pay just for an antibiotic?"

"Not really, but I know it's tough, Dad! Remember how I used to get Mom's meds from Mexico and Canada?"

He chuckled. "Yep! Sure do! That was really ballsy of you, I've gotta admit—flying out there and all. Saved us thousands of dollars, you did. But I don't have thousands of dollars now, I just want you to understand, and apparently neither do you. So I'd just as soon let this problem work itself out on its own, if it's all right with you, Little Missy."

"I don't know, Dad. This symptom might be nothing important, but it could be a symptom of something really serious." Louella eyed the clock on the stove; it was nearly 7:30. "Tell you what, Dad, let's go to the E.R. after all. I can go with you now, but not after I go back to work next week. Just humor me, okay?"

Her father stirred his coffee a moment. "Well, okay, I'll go if it'll make you happy."

From the living room, a news announcer was reporting on the upcoming presidential election. Louella heard the name "Sarah Palin," and she was amazed at how her hackles went up. Here I am with a much better education than she's got, and just a small condo to keep clean, and only my father to look after sometimes, and a low-stress job, and I can barely hold things together! Either there's something wrong with me, or there's something wrong with her, or something more's going on that we don't know about, she mused, trying to repress her resentment. Or is is jealousy? she wondered. Nah! I wouldn't want her life, no way! Louella made her way around the overstuffed furniture obstacle course to the TV remote by her father's recliner, and clicked it off. I don't need this aggravation right now, she thought.

Within 30 minutes, Louella and her father were at the Johns Hopkins E.R., which wasn't yet that crowded. In only a half-hour, they were conferring with a young resident, giving her father's medical history and describing the symptom. The doctor looked concerned. "This could be nothing a good antibiotic wouldn't cure," she said. "But it could be something more serious. I'm going to have your father admitted for some tests."

"Tests?" said her father. "Like what kind of tests?"

"Sir, you've been experiencing this problem off and on for several months. It would have been best to have come in right away, but now that you're here, we have to move quickly to rule out cancer."

Louella's father blanched. He stared at the far distance. Louella said, "What do I need to do?" Her voice shook, betraying her anxiety and annoying her at the same time. Be strong! she exhorted herself. Don't let Dad know you're worried! 

"You two just wait here and the admissions people will come by to get your information, and then they'll take you to a room as soon as it's ready," said the doctor, shaking their hands with surprising sincerity as she parted the curtain and left.

This can't be happening! Louella thought. He's only sixty-eight, for crying out loud! Her father sat on the side of the gurney, in his thin dressing gown, looking stunned and maybe a little embarrassed. Louella felt a strong urge to run and never come back. Then she burst into tears.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Louella Gets a Wake-Up Call

Louella's dad clicked off the Republican convention. "Enough of all that stuff!" he said, rising from his recliner chair with difficulty. "I already know who's got my vote anyhow!" He tottered a bit and steadied himself on the coffee table. "Oops! Easy does it!" he joked, as his face grew red.

"Dad!" said Louella, rousing herself from making "to do" lists for her planned run for the Baltimore City Council. "Are you okay? You look kind of strange."

"Nothing Medicare won't cover!" he said. "I've been having a little trouble lately, but I ’spect it'll clear up directly."

"Well, what kind of trouble? You can't let things go too long without going to the doctor. You know that! Mom would've wanted you to take care of yourself!"

"Yeah, yeah. But remember how long it took your mom to get herself looked at. She wouldn't have a lot of room to talk right now."

"Well, Dad, come on—what kind of symptoms are you having?"

"I don't rightly want to say. It's private." He stood up straight, hand against the small of his back. Boy, he's really gained a lot of weight, thought Louella. I should have noticed before!

"So come on, Dad. You can tell me. I've heard everything before."

Her father looked away, then looked back at her. "Well, I've been bleeding," he said, voice a little weak.

"Bleeding? From where?"

"You know."

"Well, since it's not something I can see, I can only think of two places. So which one is it?"

Pause. "The Number One."

"Well, tell you what, Dad! You're going to the emergency room right now!"

"No, no, no! It comes and goes. I'll deal with it in my own time. Let's go to bed now."

Boy, he's so lucky he has Medicare, thought Louella, mentally calculating how much treatment would cost if she, without health insurance, had the same symptoms. But does he have Part B, and that gap insurance? Suddenly she felt like a very bad daughter. I ought to know all this, she scolded herself. It's inexcusable for me to not know.

Then she thought, It's inexcusable that I don't have health insurance myself. That Sarah Palin, I bet she has health insurance, and her family too, and she gets it through the government, but I bet she has no use for the government when it comes to people like me! Hell, the whole state of Alaska's been on the dole forever. Louella stopped herself from fuming.

"Okay, Dad, we'll go there tomorrow. I'll take you, okay?"

"All right, Lou. If you say so." Louella knew immediately that her father was worried. Good thing I decided to take my week's vacation here with him, she thought. Not to mention I couldn't afford to go anywhere else.