After a week of being almost bedridden with a cold that started out mild and then raged into a nightmare of coughing, wheezing, snorting, sniffling, and hacking up phlegm, I reached a point where I absolutely had to leave my place to run a few errands. I still felt weak, but I knew I could do a few minor things and within an hour hurry back to the comfort of my apartment.
My first simple errand was to swing by the bank to get cash. I needed to take as few steps as possible and then get off my feet, so I pulled up to the ATM, put in my card, punched all the right buttons, and requested sixty dollars. When it asked if I wanted a receipt, I said yes. The receipt came out of a slot, but no money showed up. Not sure which slot would disburse the money, I poked and prodded and then pounded on the various ports that looked promising. Frantic, I walked to the window that overlooked the drive-through lanes and pounded on the bullet-proof glass to get someone’s attention.
A teller appeared, so I said, “The ATM didn’t give me my money.”
She mouthed words I couldn’t hear, but she pointed to a speaker at the drive-through, about ten feet away.
I walked the ten feet to the drive-through speaker and said, “The ATM didn’t give me my money.”
“I’ll be right out to help,” she said.
I knew she’d have to don a coat before coming out into the windy, forty-degree morning, so I shivered and stood by the ATM machine and waited. And waited. And waited.
My teeth chattered and the wind whipped at my clothes while I waited some more, wondering when she would arrive. I considered sitting in my car, but then I heard the teller speaking through the drive-through speaker. I walked back to the drive-through lane so I could hear the speaker, and the teller asked, “Has the money come out yet?”
“No,” I said, wanting to add “neither have you.”
“Wait a minute,” she said.
I next heard the ATM being opened from the backside, so I walked back to it. I heard it close. The speaker at the drive-through sounded again, so I had to walk back to that lane so I could understand what the teller was saying. My feet felt like heavy horse hooves.
“Please come inside,” the teller said.
Ah, but that’s what I was trying to avoid. I’m still weak and sick, and I didn’t want to have to park and walk inside, but desperate to get my sixty bucks, you bet I went back to my car, drove around to the front of the building, parked, and on my frozen hooves clopped into the bank. The teller was at the far end of the teller windows, of course, so I walked down the row to get to her.
“I didn’t see any loose cash in the machine,” she told me. “Sometimes it gets hung up. Do you have your receipt?”
“Yes.” I produced the receipt.
She studied it for a few seconds. “It says ‘Card Not Valid.’”
“What?” I hadn’t even looked at the receipt. I told her, “I don’t understand. I remembered my pin number, and it let me go through all the motions, but wouldn’t give me the cash. What’s wrong with my card?”
“When was the last time you used it?” she asked.
“I’ve never used it. This is my first time.”
“Oh, that’s the problem. If you don’t use your card for a while, the bank cancels it, so no one else can use it.”
“It never notified me of anything like that.”
“Well, that’s what must have happened.”
“What about my cash?” I asked.
“I can get it for you,” she reassured me. “First sign this cash request, and I’ll destroy this card.”
She pulled out a pair of strong scissors and cut the card in half. I thought that action would be sufficient, but she continued to cut. She carefully cut out all the numbers and then cut the numbers into small pieces. Still on my tired feet, I watched, mesmerized at her diligence and hoping to sit down as soon as possible.
“Will you want another card?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “I never had to use the card before because it was easy for me to come inside to cash a check. My situation has changed, though. I’ve moved into the retirement village nearby, and it’s not as easy to get to my car and drive to the bank.”
“I’ll have to see your driver’s license,” she said.
I dug through my purse and located my license.
When the teller returned my license, she pulled sixty dollars out of her cash drawer. “Which place did you move into?” she asked. She didn’t hand the money to me.
“Holbrook,” I said. I waited for her to pass the money through the cage to me.
“We have so many retirement homes and assisted living homes around here,” she noted, still holding my cash. “I’ve been thinking I’d like to do some volunteer work at some of them. I could help people balance their checkbooks, or I could read to them, or things like that,” she said. On and on she prattled about things she could do as a volunteer, all the while waving my cash around to emphasize her words.
When she finally stopped to catch a breath, I broke in. “We do have an assisted living portion at Holbrook,” I told her. “People in that section might very well appreciate volunteers.” I told her who to contact at Holbrook.
She finally handed me the money so she could write down the name. She looked up and asked, “So you said you want a new card?”
“Yes,” I said.
“If you wait I can make it here,” she told me, “or we can just mail it to you.”
“Please mail it,” I said, longing to get off my feet.
“When it arrives, you’ll have to activate the card with a pin number that will be mailed either before or after your card arrives,” she began.
“All you’ll have to do is call the number on the card—”
“Thank you,” I blurted, turned, and shuffled out as well I could.
Next I needed to pick up a few groceries. As I pulled near the parking lot for the store, a line of four cars slowly entered ahead of me. While I waited, three of the cars parked in all the handicap spots, which meant I had to park elsewhere, despite my having a handicap sticker. I found a spot not too far from the store entrance and parked.
To get a cart one must put a quarter in a slot that unlocks one cart on a little chain. When you return the cart and hook it back into the chain, it returns your quarter to you. By the time I crossed the parking lot and reached the carts, my feet were numb from the cold and from all the standing I had just done at the bank. I put my quarter in the slot, but the chain wouldn’t release a cart. I jiggled it and wiggled it and punched it and pulled it, but it wouldn’t release a cart. With my weak fingernails and much maneuvering I extracted my quarter from the slot. Happy to have my quarter back, I walked around the side of the building where more carts awaited. That mechanism worked, and I got a cart. When I walked back around to the door, I saw another woman beating and jiggling on the release mechanism. I chuckled to myself and walked into the store.
Okay, I needed eggs and a few other things. When I went to the egg cooler, the shelves were empty. Behind that set of shelves, however, I could see two other metal shelves full of eggs. To reach them I had to push the empty shelving unit to one side as much as I could and then step inside the cooler so I could reach the distant shelves that held eggs. Afraid I’d drop the eggs once my fingers managed to reach them, I stood in the cooler and carefully pulled one carton of eggs from the outlying shelf. The cooler door closed behind me. Fear washed over me in the frigid air. Had I locked myself inside the cooler? To my relief I got the door open and walked out.
The shopping went well from that point on, and I had a sense that all was going to work out after all, even though I was growing more exhausted. I had only one more stop to make.
When I drove into the parking lot of the drug store, a small bus was parked sideways, occluding all the handicap spots. What was printed in large letters across the side of the bus? Holbrook, the name of my retirement complex.
I entered the store and looked for the area that would hold cold medicine. I had to walk past aisle after aisle and then shelf after shelf before I found the correct area in the far-left corner of the store. I chose the medicines I needed—two bottles of cough medicine because I had used my entire supply—and two boxes of NyQuill, so that I might sleep without having to sit up to cough every few minutes. I walked all the way back to the cashier at the front of the store and pulled out my credit card.
“What’s your phone number?” she asked.
“You don’t need that,” I said, weary and desperate to get back to my place so I could dose up on more medicine and maybe even take a nap.
“This is ‘buy one, get one at half off.’ If you want that discount, you have to put in your phone number.” She pointed to a digital pad.
Discount? Of course I’ll give you my phone number, I thought. I dutifully punched in my cell phone number.
“It’s not in our system,” she said. “Do you have another phone number?”
“I used to have a landline, but I gave it up a long time ago,” I said.
“Try that number.” She pointed to the pad again.
“Okay.” I punched in the area code and my mind went blank. I hadn’t used the landline number in more than a year. I could think only of my sister’s phone number, and not my own. “Look,” I told the cashier, “it’s been a crazy morning. I have a cold. I’m exhausted. I’m full of medicine, and I can’t remember my old number.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “Put in a number you do remember, and we’ll register you again.”
I punched in my cell number.
“Good, now what’s your name?”
I told her.
“And your address.”
My new address has a bunch of numbers I rarely remember correctly, so I had to look at the notes on my phone to read off my new address.
“Okay, you’re registered now,” she said, “but for some reason it’s not giving you the discount.” She tried a few more things on her computerized cash register, but nothing would give me the discount. “Let me get some help,” she told me.
I watched while the young girl spoke into some sort of digital device. For several minutes more, we waited while I tried not to think of my poor numb feet and tired legs and aching lungs. In the interim I noticed her nametag. “Your name is Patience?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, Patience, you earned you name today.”
A manager eventually arrived and the two of them used another device to look something up, after which the manager looked at me and said, “This item doesn’t have a discount.”
“Okay, then just let me pay,” I said.
“But the NyQuill does have a discount,” she said.
“Great!” I paid and left the store.
I had to drive fewer than three miles to get home, but the whole time I worried about what would go wrong next. I had spent three exhausting hours on a trip I thought would take an hour at the most.
Finally in the comfort of my apartment I felt compelled to write about my day. I am, after all, a writer. I sat down and typed. Soon lost in my mission, I failed to watch the time. When my stomach told me it was getting late, I realized I’d missed the window during which I could have had ordered a meal delivered to my apartment. Here at Holbrook we have strict rules about when to order meals to be delivered. I could have ordered a delivery if I’d called between 3:30 and 4:30, but it was five o’clock. My stomach rumbled, but I would have to wait until 6:30 to call and then wait until 7:00 for my meal to be delivered. My option was obvious; I’d have to muster enough remaining strength to walk to the elevators, ride down to the first floor, and go to the restaurant in my facility.
At about ten minutes after five o’clock I walked into the restaurant. The room felt colder than I expected, and I wished I’d worn a sweater or jacket, but I didn’t want to go back up to my apartment, so I sat down. Servers bustled about, taking orders and serving meals to about fifty of us residents, all over the age of seventy. My server acknowledged me and said she’d get to me as soon as she could.
I nodded and looked at my phone. I often played Scrabble online while I waited. I’d barely logged into the program when the fire alarm blared and lights flashed. We hadn’t been notified of a fire drill, and even so, our fire drills always took place in the daytime. We residents looked at each other. Some of us stood, unsure of what we should do. For fire drills we were told to stand in the stairwells, which were fire resistant, until we were instructed to go back to our rooms or vacate the building. The restaurant, though, was on the ground floor; no stairwells were nearby.
The food and beverage manager came into the room. Behind him smoke billowed from the kitchen. “Go outside!” he demanded, pushing his hands as if shoving us out the door. “This is not a drill.”
A few people headed toward the courtyard, something we’d been told would be a death sentence, since there would be no escape from the courtyard if the whole building caught fire.
“No!” he shouted, and some of the staff members then formed a line to block the doors to the courtyard. “You have to go out there!” He pointed to the only exit door to the outside.
Outside? The daytime had been cold. What would the temperature be now? I moved to the side of the room, thinking I would go up to my apartment and get a jacket. I then remembered that the elevators don’t work when the fire alarm sounds.
Jacketless I joined the crowd that moved toward the door, many with the aid of walkers or canes. One by one we piled out the only exit. In the cold evening air we huddled on the ramp right outside, trying to gain warmth from each other. Since we’d come to the restaurant from our apartments within the building, few of us had coats. I leaned against the rock façade of the building, hoping to gain some warmth there, but what was I thinking? Clammy cold shot through my body. Wind whipped at us while a few of us tried to joke, most of us shivering in the arctic air.
I looked up the weather report on my cell phone. It said the wind-chill factor made it feel like it was thirty-seven degrees. It was right.
Minutes passed. My feet hurt.
Someone in authority came out and shouted, “You must move away from the building. You can’t stand up here by the door.”
Of course. I shuffled down the ramp with the others and entered the parking lot. There I spotted my car. With a flash of brilliance I thought I could get out of the wind if I sat in my car. I could even drive away if necessary. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my key chain. I had only my apartment key. I had no reason to take my car key to the restaurant. I couldn’t even open my trunk, where I kept at least a windbreaker.
No, I had to stand in the parking lot, shivering with about fifty others. Yes, I was still suffering with chest congestion and coughing and I had trouble walking or standing for long, but most of the others were even older than me, and some wore even thinner blouses than I was wearing.
“How long will this take?” a little woman asked no one in particular.
“Shouldn’t take long. The fire department is only two blocks away,” someone answered.
A siren sounded in the distance.
“See?” another woman said.
Arms crossed, we quivered some more, still huddling for warmth.
No fire engine showed up.
More minutes passed. My back ached. My mind wandered. Had I finally stopped shivering? Wait! When the tremors stop, it’s a sign of hypothermia, which can be deadly. Were we all going to die? My shakes returned, which gave me weird comfort.
“The staff can come back in,” the general manager called out. He waved his workers back into the building.
“It’s okay for the staff to burn?” I asked my nearest neighbor.
She smiled, but nothing felt humorous at the time.
More time passed.
Finally the manager waved his hand at the shuddering crowd and said, “It’s okay. Come back in. It was just a pot on the stove in the kitchen.”
Babbling with happiness but chilled to the bone, we single-filed back into the restaurant that had been cleared of smoke. The room never felt so warm. When everyone was seated the restaurant manager clanked a spoon on a glass to get attention. “We are doing our best to get the restaurant back up and running. We ask for your patience.”
People clapped. My stomach rumbled.
When my food finally arrived I thanked my lucky stars. I rewarded myself with a slice of warm pumpkin bread pudding à la mode before I returned to my apartment to finish writing about my day from hell.