“Remember, tomorrow’s a half-day,” Dr. Osborne said as he and Hilda tidied up their respective offices. “Doris stays behind to do paperwork, which she could never keep up with unless we leave her alone.”
“You’re going to visit your shut-ins, right?”
Reginald came out of his office, shrugging on his coat. “That’s right.”
“Why don’t I come along?”
“No need. These patients never come here.”
“You’re paying for me a full work-week, and I’m curious. Would there be a problem?”
The doctor stopped and turned towards his nurse coming out. He did not answer right away.
“No. I don’t think so. If you insist.”
“I do. Thanks.”
“Wear some good walking shoes.” He smiled and held the door for her. Hilda walked home, going left down Cherry Avenue. It was a little longer than West Main Street, but she tried to be unpredictable about her commute.
A half-dozen men of various ages were drinking beer on the steps of the gas station on the corner of Cherry and Roosevelt Brown Boulevard as she turned right towards her street. They hooted some cat calls and chanted “Oreo, Oreo; oh, so sweet-oh!” She tried to ignore them, but her anger was building as she forced herself not to speed up. No one came any closer – she would have welcomed that – and slowly the chant died off. She had been called that before, and she understood where it came from, but she still bristled at the insult.
When she opened the door to the flat, she heard Bedřich Smetana’s The Moldau on the stereo. Jack came out with a smile but halted.
“You look ready to take someone down.” He backed up a little. Hilda let out a breath and her pent-up fury. She hugged him and gave him a kiss.
“I’m not taking you down that way. I didn’t realize that I was still wearing my rage.”
“Nothing serious. A bunch of guys drinking beer on the corner chanted cat-calls and insults as I walked by. No one came close.”
“But you’re still in your proactive striking mode.”
“Something like that.” She kissed him again. “Have you drunk all the beer yet?”
They each took a bottle of pilsner to the living room. There was only a bit of the pink left behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was gone by the time they got comfortable.
“So why did this gang get to you?”
“Maybe because I’m more aware of how closely the local community has been watching me. It’s disconcerting sometimes. I’ve been called ‘Oreo’ before Charlottesville, but I’ve overheard it twice in the last week.”
“Does this have to do with me?”
“No. You don’t call someone ‘Oreo’ just for having a white boyfriend. It means that I’m not one of them: I’m only black on the outside.”
They looked out the window some more. Jack looked at her.
“The problem is that you are white on the inside. You’re the spitting image of your mother, even her eyes and the long, fine hair. You’re German on the inside in more ways than one. You just got the wrong paint job at the factory.”
“But that’s all they see, and they judge me.”
“I get more bad vibes about us from my white acquaintances than from blacks.”
Hilda sighed. “I’ve never felt so foreign in my life as I have in my own country.”
“Just one of your countries, meine Geliebte.”
“I would feel more at home in Kaiserslautern, but I don’t want to move back. I love this country, dammit!”
“I wish people could see you the way I do when we kiss.”
“You can’t see me, because you close your eyes.”
Hilda thought about that for a while. Then she leaned over and gave him a long, lingering kiss. “Thanks.”
“For making me feel at home, for one. For seeing me as I am. I love that.”
The next day, Jack rode off to Rivanna Station. Hilda walked to work. She was looking forward to the afternoon rounds. She remembered fondly the German grandmothers (and occasional grandfathers) who had seen so much and had such incredible tales to tell. She wondered if this would be like that. Of course, here, there had been Jim Crow; there, it was the struggle to recover from the Nazi era. Here, she had to pay attention to see the signs of systemic racism; there, reminders of the Allied bombing were evident in the ruins and in the shiny new cities rising from the ashes. The division of East and West Germany through the Cold War never let them forget. She realized that while the Army had taught her the rudiments of being black in America, it had also shielded her from the realities. She had learned code-switching between languages, but not between cultures. Her language, attitudes, and bearing matched the Army’s expectations, but were essentially mainstream white – as Jack had told her.
With thoughts like these, she reached the porch of the house on Ridge Street to find the door still locked. She almost walked around to the garage, when she spotted Dr. Osborne’s familiar figure walking up the street.
“Good morning, Hilda.” He reached into his coat pocket and extracted a ring of keys. “Anxious today?”
“I was thinking of the rounds this afternoon and walked faster than I expected.” He held the door for her again. “These old people must have some incredible stories to tell.”
“They’re not all old, but many do have stories. Some will share; some won’t.”
“I’ll follow your lead.” They hung up their coats in their respective rooms. “Want me to make the coffee?”
“Would you, please? I need to make a few calls and double check the appointments. There’s one I’m worried about.”
Hilda went to the kitchen/break-room and turned on the coffeemaker. As she came back, he called out from the reception area. “The Pfizer and Novartis reps are coming this morning. They’ll be bringing us samples. One has a new drug that has just been approved for Alzheimer’s. I talked to Dr. Hogan at Martha Jefferson about it; it might be good for Louisa Jackson’s mother.”
“Yes. You know her?”
“No. I know Tani through Emily. I met Louisa, but no one mentioned a grandmother.”
“For some, that is part of why I make these rounds. You’ll see.”
At 8:30, Doris arrived and set up shop in the front. The Pfizer rep arrived at 08:45, toting two large suitcases full of samples. She rolled them into the doctor’s office, while Hilda disarmed the alarm and unlocked the pharmacy closet. The rep was a stunning woman in a blue business suit, her blonde hair in a pony tail and conservative, but stylish pumps. Her good looks were an asset in a field where most buyers were still men, but Hilda noticed that Ms. Everett’s knowledge of pharmacology matched her looks. As the doctor and the sales representative ran through the inventory, the woman had in-depth quantitative data to answer Osborne’s many questions. Hilda knew that he kept up with the research, but she was always impressed by how broad a scope a General Practitioner had to cover; this man read it all and in depth. It took a half-hour to discuss the new drugs, which were only a small portion of the load. It took another ten minutes for Hilda and Dr. Osborne to stow the contents of the two suitcases in the closet. Most were samples of ordinary drugs in production. Ms Everett took charge of her empty suitcases and thanked Dr. Osborne.
At 9:45, the Novartis rep appeared, an equally smart Puerto Rican named Manuela Sanchez with two suitcases. The routine was almost identical to the ritual with Pfizer, but Ms. Sanchez had the new Alzheimer’s drug, which extended the conversation by five minutes. When she left at 10:25, the closet was chock full. Hilda locked it and set the alarm. She put another pot of coffee on and came back to the doctor’s office.
“I’m amazed at the amount of product they left you.”
Osborne smiled, “Can you imagine having to stock that cabinet out of my business account?”
“How do they get away with it?”
“They don’t ‘get away’ with anything, Hilda. They have to distribute a quota of samples every month. Most of the doctors they visit only want a little bit of the latest, hard-to-find drugs. Their patients have prescription insurance – like your Tricare for Life. The whole idea is to write prescriptions. Most of our patients could never get the prescriptions filled.”
Hilda nodded. “They’re delighted to have someplace to leave the quota each month.”
He smiled and pointed to the kitchen. They walked down for refills before the first patients arrived.
The morning went quickly, with only four patients. They had everyone out and the office closed by noon. The three of them had lunch in the kitchen, the first time they had been able to sit together all week.
“First off, Hilda,” said the doctor, “when we’re alone, I’m Reginald or Reggie. We only use titles in public. Most of the patients expect it.”
“Do you see much of each other outside the office? I haven’t seen either of you.”
They explained that they had gone to school together and grown up in the neighbourhood. As two of the few kids who went to college, they stayed in touch, with Doris teaching Reggie’s two boys and he delivering her son and daughter. The children were all grown now and living all over the country. His wife died ten years earlier. Reginald and Doris both went to Zion First African Baptist Church, where Doris was one of the soloists. They were surprised that Hilda attended Saint Paul’s Memorial.
“We have a close relationship with Saint Paul’s,” said the doctor. “We worship together on Wednesdays in Lent and join for musical events now and again.”
“How did you end up there?” asked Doris.
“I grew up Episcopalian. My father was Church of England before he emigrated to the US. My mother was altkatholische, which is a German church in the Anglican Communion. That and the music made Saint Paul’s a perfect match for me.”
Doris and Reginald exchanged glances, then nodded.
“The music is beautiful, I agree,” he said, “and the space has wonderful acoustics.” The conversation shifted to the afternoon rounds.
“We have about two-dozen patients,” he said. “if I can see a half-dozen every week, I can visit everyone once a month.”
“They’d love to see you more than that,” said Doris. She got up and washed out her lunch container. The others put leftovers away and washed up, also.
Reginald set a brisk pace as they walked the block to Garrett Street and began visiting homes in the multi-family row houses on either side.
“First stop is Jesse Benson.” He pointed to the next house on the right. “Mr. Benson is only 74, but arthritis attacked his hips and knees together. That and a heart attack two months ago have left him unable to walk even with a walker – at least until his heart gets better.”
“Was he in good health before?”
“Depends on who you ask. He got cancer from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam and recovered. But I think it took more out of his system than even he admits. The VA disability benefits on top of his Social Security leave him better off than some – at least the VA buys his meds and follows up on his health care when he can get out there. But the VA doesn’t make house calls.”
“So, he is not actually a patient of yours.”
“His family brings him to me for everything. Taking him to the VA clinic is a hardship on them. His daughter and son-in-law both work two jobs, and their little ones don’t drive yet. Still, the VA will take care of the major problems, which would break them financially.”
“Was he Army?”
“Sergeant in the 101st Airborne when he was wounded and brought out.”
A woman of indeterminate age with grey hair and a tired expression opened the door. Her face brightened when she saw the doctor. It took ten years off her appearance.
“Hello, Rachel. This is Nurse Paisley. Hilda, Rachel Madison.”
“I live next door. When everyone is out, I stay with Mr. Benson.”
“Is he awake?”
She nodded and motioned them inside.
The house was tidy and clean, though the furniture was well-worn. A shadow box with Army decorations and patches occupied a conspicuous place on the sideboard, surrounded by framed photos of family. Hilda noticed the bed on the far wall with a thin man sitting propped up on pillows. His skin was drawn tight over his face and the blood vessels and sinews of this neck. His hair was snow white, cut short. His smile showed a set of white teeth in good condition.
“Dr. Osborne! You’re a sight for these eyes. Come in, come in!”
“How are you doing, Mr. Benson?”
“Same as last month, but I can make it to the latrine with a little help now.” He looked up at Hilda. “What have you brought me today, Doc? This is an angel.”
“This is Nurse Paisley, Mr. Benson. She just started this week, and she asked to come around today.”
Benson stuck out his hand. His grip was firm. His eyes peered deeply as if going for her soul. “Please to meet you, Nurse. You seem like a sturdy one. I wish you’d been around when I needed you.”
“I understand you were with the 101st Airborne.”
“Mind if we take your vital signs?” asked Dr. Osborne. He nodded to Hilda, who pulled her stethoscope out of her coat pocket.
“Go ahead. The arm’s sticking out already.” He smiled at Hilda. “You’re worth an extra 20 points on the blood pressure, you know.”
Hilda smiled at him and stuck a thermometer in his mouth while she took his blood pressure.
“Thank you, Nurse. Let me see if his heart sounds any different than last month.” Dr. Osborne pulled his stethoscope from an inside pocket and checked Benson carefully.
“Mr. Benson, can you try to move to a sitting position?”
It was obviously painful, but he managed to sit up, then slide his legs to the edge of the bed. The effort left him breathing heavily for a minute. Dr. Osborne checked him while sitting upright. Then he had Hilda ease his legs back into bed. Benson clearly enjoyed her attention.
“Our medic was a skinny teenager and almost couldn’t lift his own pack. That didn’t even hurt this time.” He winced as he shuffled back into a sitting position. “Where’d you get those eyes, Nurse? They’re amazing.”
“My mother, sir.”
“Bring her around, Doc. I could fall in love again!”
Hilda smiled and tucked him in.
After checking on his supply of medicines and making sure that he was taking them, Dr. Osborne and Hilda made their excuses and left.
“Mrs. Dunleavy won’t be so pleasant,” said Reginald as they approached another home. “She’s 85, obese, diabetic, opinionated and bossy. She’s a hopeless gossip, which has its good and bad side, because she invites neighbours in to trade dirt. Having company staves off depression, but also feeds her ugly side, which is the dislike of those on the nastier side of the gossip.”
“Do I detect a warning about me?”
“Maybe. Let’s see how it goes.”
He rang the bell. A young woman in a McDonald’s uniform answered the door. “Dr. Osborne. Thank you for coming. Mom said she would be here by now, but she’s running late, and I have to go to work.”
“Will she be long?”
“She’s on the bus now, so I guess 20 minutes or so.”
“That’ll be OK, Becky. You go to work. Nurse Paisley and I will stay with your grandmother until she arrives.”
“Thanks!” She nodded to Hilda, “Nice to meet you.” Becky rushed out the door and walked quickly west.
“She works on Ridge-McIntire Street until ten pm. Becky’s mother works seven to two. Becky’s daughter gets home from school at four. So the home care is usually covered if something doesn’t go wrong with the buses in the afternoon. Fortunately, little Shiara is a bright, solid girl. She needs less minding than our patient.”
“Any fathers around?”
“Nope. Four generations of single Dunleavy’s.”
“What about the gossipy friends?” Hilda asked as they let themselves in the open door.
“Evenings sometimes, but mostly weekends. They work, too.”
Hilda paused in the entrance. The house was identical to the Benson home and just as tidy. Dr. Osborne nodded to the stairs.
“Mrs. Dunleavy?” He shouted as he climbed. “Dr. Osborne to see you.”
“Reggie! Come on up!”
In the first bedroom at the head of the stairs, Mariah Dunleavy occupied most of a queen-sized bed. She seemed lively and well enough except for her enormous mass: skin smooth, hair grey, but cut neatly short. She had a TV remote in her pudgy hands, which she used to turn off the large-screen TV on the wall opposite. She gave the doctor a broad smile and waved them into the room.
“Hello, Mrs. Dunleavy. I brought my new nurse with me. Mariah Dunleavy, this is Hilda Paisley.”
The large woman scowled. She ignored Hilda’s outstretched hand. Hilda withdrew it.
“I know about you.” She looked at Dr. Osborne. “Why did you bring her here?”
“She’s my nurse.” Reginald Osborne bristled and scowled back. Mariah Dunleavy seemed stunned. After a brief stare-down, she lost her own scowl and dropped her gaze.
Hilda was shocked, but kept her face expressionless. She moved back by the door to let the doctor examine his patient. Hilda’s emotions ran furiously beneath the surface as she occasionally caught Mariah Dunleavy frowning at her. She recognized the taming of a bully in her boss’ subduing of his patient, but she also knew that most bullies hid insecurities and misunderstanding.
“We’re going to check behind you now,” he said at one point. “Nurse, give me a hand, please.”
“I don’t want her touching me!”
“Can you do it by yourself, Mrs. Dunleavy? Your daughter isn’t home yet.”
Hilda touched the doctor on his arm. “Let me talk to her a moment.” He stood back. Hilda walked up close to the woman and said, “Mrs. Dunleavy, just what is your problem with me?”
Mariah Dunleavy looked at her angrily first. Hilda held her gaze, and the woman’s expression shifted to fear.
“Don’t like Oreo’s. The cookies or the other.”
“Is that it?”
“Think you’re too good for your kind. Living in the white side of town, hanging with white folk. You don’t even know your own here.”
Hilda smiled gently and said “Mrs. Dunleavy, I am an Oreo, and I know it. Unlike most of the people you know, I was born an Oreo. Do you even know where I’m from?”
Mariah shook her head.
“Germany. I’m not even African-American. Racially, I’m African-German.”
“I saw the steins on the mantle downstairs. Have you ever met a German?”
“Yes. I worked in a Bavarian restaurant long ago.
“Try this, Mrs. Dunleavy. Close your eyes and listen.”
Mariah looked at the doctor, who nodded. She shut her eyes. Reginald looked quizzically at his nurse.
“Before you open your eyes, imagine what I might look like if you had only heard me on the telephone, without ever seeing me. Gut tag, meine Frau. Wie geht es ihnen heute? Ich bin eine Kraneschwester.” Now, with your eyes shut, describe the person on the other end of the phone.”
Mariah Dunleavy squeezed her eyes shut. She thought about it, then suddenly let out a sigh.
“You sound like my first boss’ daughter: tall, straw-blonde, blue eyes, a little gawky, even clumsy.”
“White, of course.”
“Of course. Open your eyes.” Mariah did, and looked straight into Hilda’s. “You pretty much described my mother.”
“And your father?”
“Grew up in London. His family was from Rhodesia in Africa. My father was brought to the US as a teenager and became a citizen by enlisting in the US Army. We lived all over the world, but he retired to my mother’s hometown, and I grew up there. I came back to the US to join the Army myself. In many ways it was an Oreo outfit, so I fit right in. I only just retired from the Army, ”
“I’m sorry, Nurse Paisley. Please accept my apologies.”
“Accepted. I’m still learning how to be black in America.”
Just as they finished turning her and laying her back, they heard the front door slam.
“Hey, Mom, I’m home!” A strong voice from downstairs.
“Up here, sweetie. Dr. Osborne and Nurse Paisley are here.”
In walked a middle-aged woman in a housekeeper’s uniform from the University Housing Division. She was still out of breath. “I ran from the bus. Thank God you’re here,” she said to Dr. Osborne. “I came as fast as I could.”
“That’s OK, Marian. We were having a most interesting visit with your mother, weren’t we?”
“Indeed we were. You come back any time, Nurse Paisley.”
Out on the street, Dr. Osborne let out a long breath.
“You had me worried there for a moment. That was brilliant. How did you think of that?”
“I didn’t. My friend Jack did. Yesterday, some guys were chanting ‘Oreo’ at me. I knew what they meant, and it angered me. Jack pointed out how I really was white inside and helped me understand why.”
“I could see that your behaviour and language were natural to you, so I figured your family was Jamaican or something like that. Doris and I have both been wondering.”
They had time for three more patients, these on the other side of the street. They were in late stages of Alzheimer’s so while Hilda checked their vitals and examined them physically, Reginald held their hands and told them fairy tales from their childhood.
“Will we see Louisa Jackson’s mother today?”
“I just saw her last week. Let’s call it a day.”
They walked back to the office. Hilda set up the coffeemaker for the next day. They left their medical instruments in their offices.
“Good evening, Hilda. Thanks for coming today.”
“Thank you for letting me come along. See you tomorrow, Reggie.” He smiled and held the door for her.
A reminder that there is a contest to name this story. What would be a good title for it? The winner gets a free copy of the book, whenever it comes out. The judge will be the editor or publisher; their decision will be final, of course. If the editor or publisher goes with a title that no one else picked, I’ll send a free copy to the last two titles in the final round.
Submit your entries by posting comments here or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks in advance.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,