“Dear Lord Jesus, I have been your loving spouse for fifty years. This year will be the golden anniversary of the day I took my vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. I have tried to serve you faithfully. I ask that you allow me to continue helping the poor people I serve in your name. Please don’t let them close the dental clinic. Not my will but Yours be done. Amen.”
I drive down Charlevoix Street past the abandoned and burned-out houses. Some of the abandoned ones have the doors wide open. They say there are junkies living in them. Last week one of the burnt ones fell over. Then I turn onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Most mornings I attend morning Mass at the Capuchin Monastery and Soup Kitchen before work. This Tuesday I can’t attend Mass because I need to get to the free dental clinic early to set up for Dr. Bob’s birthday party. I make the sign of the cross as I drive by.
I turn onto Rosa Parks Drive and slow down past the Rebirth Project. It’s a whole block of abandoned houses splattered with paint drops from top to bottom. Household items, such as pots and pans, pillows, chairs, small tables, cribs, and lamps are nailed to the splattered buildings. Between the houses are huge piles of mattresses, dishes and old furniture, stacked carefully, as if for a bonfire. The so-called artist who created this lovely scene calls it “blight on blight.” His name is Malcolm something and he’s somewhat of a local hero. His message is painted on a big plywood sign in the middle of the block. “Out of decay, comes hope!”
I don’t get it. I know a little something about art and this is not art. I have a beautiful oil painting in my apartment that I painted myself and I can tell you it took me months to do it. I painted shadows on each tree a slightly different color from the trunk. I painted the leaves on the trees many different shades of green. This makes it look realistic, like the sun is lighting the trees from a certain angle. Some parts of the picture were so small I could hardly read the numbers without my magnifying glass. If you stand very close, my painting looks like random splatters of paint, just like the Rebirth Project. But when you stand back from it, say in the middle of my living room, it looks exactly like a scene out of nature. But when you stand back from the Rebirth Project, say from across the street, it still looks like a bunch of splatters.
The city was going to tear down the houses in the Rebirth Project but when the Press got wind of the story, people protested so much, they had to leave it alone. The city never gets around to tearing down any of the other abandoned buildings so I guess they may as well let these stand. As least there are no junkies living in them.
In about two minutes, I arrive at my building and click the remote that opens the big iron parking lot gates. I drive in, park my car and say a little prayer that my catalytic converter will be there when I get out of work this evening. My car’s got a dent in the back where I hit a truck’s trailer hitch leaving the parking lot last week. I was so mad because no one’s supposed to be in the clinic parking lot at five o’clock. So why should I have to look in my rearview mirror when I back out?
I cross the street to the big green cinderblock building. The paint has been peeling for a few years now, pieces of paint flaking off like little leaves onto the sidewalk. I enter ,sign in at the front desk, right across the lobby from the Thrift Store and say hi to the LaTonya, our receptionist.
“Hey, Sister Honora,” she says.
She buzzes open the doors so I can take the elevator to the basement. I walk down the hallway and unlock the door to the operatories. I take a deep breath. The room smells of clove oil and clean. I turn on the lights. The housekeepers have been careless lately. I take my paint scraper from the cupboard and remove the remaining wax particles from the linoleum floors. Then I turn on the suction and listen.
“Shhhhhhh,” the room whispers.
I glance at the poster-sized floral prints on the walls of the operatories. I bought them from the craft store and framed them myself. These are art.
I walk across the hallway to the offices. Holly, my assistant, is already there. Holly has been working with me since we opened twenty years ago. She came to the clinic right after her husband died. Holly is Baptist, not Catholic like me. Baptists spend most of their in church on Sunday. They don’t know how to pray efficiently like we Catholics do.
There are certain things a polite person isn’t supposed to look at, no matter how big the temptation, like someone’s personal mail left lying around. This is the circumstance I find myself in each day when I encounter Holly , dressed for the office. Her blouses are cut too low, her skirts are cut too high and everything is cut too tight. However, being a bit of an amateur sewer, I have to admit to some admiration for the unyielding seams, zippers and buttons that link the colorful sentinels of modesty marching along with her, as she bends, stoops and wiggles her way through the clinic.
“No!” I say when I see what she’s up to. How many times must I show her?
I must have startled her because she almost falls off the table in the break room where she’s standing. Holly’s not as tall as me, even with those ridiculous high heels she always wears. Today the heels, blouse and skirt are neon green. She’s trying to tape the “Happy Birthday Dr. Bob” sign to the wall, one letter at a time.
“First of all, get down from that table. You need to get that skirt hem closer to the ground. ” When I was a young nun and still wore habit, I used to teach school. I made the girl students kneel on the floor. If their hems didn’t touch the floor, their skirts were too short and they were sent home. If I tried that with Holly, I wouldn’t have an assistant. She’d be sent home every day.
“Here, I’ll tape up the sign. See, you need to roll the tape and stick it to the back of the letters, then stick them to the wall, ” I say, “If you put the tape on the front like you were doing , it will ruin the letters and I won’t be able to use them next year.”
Dr. Bob is eighty years old today. He retired from regular dentistry over twenty years ago and now volunteers here the three days the clinic is open. We started the clinic together although I’m only seventy five. His eyesight’s going fast, he’s almost deaf and his hands shake pretty bad. Dr. Bob’s got a good heart but, let’s face it, aside from the that fact he’s the only licensed dentist left in the clinic, there’s nothing more useless than an old man. My eyesight is perfect and I’m as strong and steady as an ox.
Luckily Dr. Bob has Imelda to help him. Imelda is a very skilled Albanian woman who got her dental degree in Europe. She can only work under the supervision of a licensed dentist in the US. It would be perfect if only Imelda weren’t so darn opinionated about everything. It’s like the blind leading the bigot. Good one, Honora!
“Did you hear any more about them selling the place?” Holly asks.
“Not today, Holly,” I say.”Can’t we just enjoy Dr. Bob’s birthday?
By “them” Holly means the people upstairs, the people who never even come down to the basement to visit us, the “parent” group. What kind of parents never visit their children? The director attends morning mass at the monastery most days, just like me. He always says hello and he seems like a nice man. But, after twenty years, he says we don’t have the money to continue. We’re doing God’s work and we can’t find the money? They want to close the clinic and lease this space to the IRS just to pay the rent. What!?! The IRS! Well maybe it does make sense. I can just imagine it.
“Please have a seat in this dental chair, Mr. Citizen, while we review your tax returns. I promise, this won’t hurt a bit.” ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ
Holly interrupts my thoughts.
“Maybe we won’t need these signs next year if Dr. Bob retires like he says he will,” says Holly. “You should talk to him. Maybe you can convince him to stay.”
Oh for goodness sakes! Of course Dr. Bob’s not going to retire. He’s the only dentist we have! All the other volunteers have left. They come for a while but when it starts interfering with their vacations and family life, they quit. Holly’s a nice person but sometimes she lacks faith. Holly is always trying to get me to do something. But what can I do? She doesn’t understand. It’s not up to me. Things will always work out because Someone Else is in charge.
I plug in the crock pot full of chicken noodle soup I made last night at ten o’clock. I always cook at ten o’clock at night. When I get home from the clinic, I fall asleep on the couch. After I wake up, I do my jigsaw puzzle for a while and eat some supper. Then it’s time to cook. The soup I made looks and smells delicious. My secret? I never use fresh ingredients. Why use real celery when celery powder is so much better? I hate the crunch and overpowering taste of the real thing. I buy the chicken broth from the Dollar Store. I get the herbs and the egg noodles there too. Of course I use real chicken from a can. It’s all made from scratch and everyone loves it.
I pull out my bags of decorations from the Dollar Store. I love the Dollar Store. Besides my groceries and decorations, I find everything I need for the clinic there. Bins for the clinic supplies, crackers and cheese snacks for the diabetic patients, greeting cards for the birthdays and holidays, jigsaw puzzles for the waiting room, snack bags to fill with water for freezing into ice packs for extractions. You name it. It’s there. I found the funniest birthday candle. You turn the base and put it on the cake and it spins and plays the birthday song over and over again. I know Dr. Bob will love it.
Imelda arrives next. “Is D here yet?” Imelda asks.
D is our newly hired dental assistant. D stands for Deshawn. He heard about the clinic from one of our patients. D is a nice young man who lives in a very bad neighborhood. He was raised in foster homes since he was four years old. He told me his life was very bad and I believe him. Maybe someday he’ll tell me the stories just like the patients do. He doesn’t have a car and has to take two busses to work. But he comes every day. He is a little slow but he’s in training and I think we should give him a chance. No one else would and he’s very grateful. However, I do wish he would pull his pants all the way up to his waist and wear a belt. Why is it these young men today seem to think everyone wants to see their underpants?
Imelda thinks D’s lazy and stupid and should be fired. Imelda thinks all Americans are lazy and stupid and should be fired.
“No, D’s not here yet. He has to take two busses you know. They don’t always run on time.” I say.
“Of course,” she says, “Why should he be here on time? You know I could smell alcohol on his breath last week? Dr. Bob could too.”
“I already spoke to him about that,” I say. “He won’t do it again.” I wish Imelda would lay off D.
Imelda rolls her eyes.
Pretty soon D comes in and slouches in one of the chairs in the break room where we’re setting up. He closes his eyes.
Imelda kicks him and says, “Wake up, D, time for work.”
He frowns and closes his eyes.
“Where are you going on vacation?” Imelda asks Holly.
“Venice,” says Holly. Holly is going on a tour with her church group and she’s really excited about it. She lives alone now that her two children are grown have moved out. She finally has some time and money for herself.
“Where’s Venice?,” D asks, half opening his eyes.
“Venice, Italy. Don’t they teach you anything in school here? “snaps Imelda. “The school I went to was over 900 years old. We had a sense of history.”
D closes his eyes again.
“Give him a break, Imelda. Who can remember what they learned in grade school geography?” Holly says.
“That’s the trouble with this country,” says Imelda, “You people don’t know anything about the rest of the world. You think the America is the only place in the world.”
“Venice is a crazy place , D,” Holly says. “I read about it in the tour brochure. The city is built on mud and the streets are made of water. People get around in water taxis. The main town square floods quite often.”
“Have you ever been anywhere besides this city?” Imelda asks D.
“I was in New York once,” says D. ” I really liked it there. Lots of good clubs. But everyone can tell you’re not from there.”
“So you went to New York and spent your time in clubs! That is so typical of Americans. No culture. Don’t you know there are many famous museums in New York?” says Imelda.
D shifts in his chair.
“I saw a movie about Albania with our movie group.” Holly says. “It was called Lamerica. Everyone was poor as our patients and trying to get out of the country.”
Imelda blushes and frowns at Holly. “After the fall of communism, the borders were opened and many people tried to get out. Of course my family stayed. My parents work hard and when you work hard, you can live well anywhere.”
“Do people live there?” asks D.
“Where?” We ask together.
“Venice,” says D.
“Of course,” says Imelda.
“But if it floods and all that, why do they stay there?” says D.
“Maybe they think Venice the only place in the world, ” I say.
Imelda stomps off for the operatory.
The patients come mostly from around the neighborhood. They get here early because we don’t make real appointments. It’s sort of first come, first served. They don’t smile much and I can’t blame them. I wouldn’t smile much if I had their dental situations. Holly goes out to the waiting room and yells, “Morning Everybody! Come on down!” and they follow her up to the desk to sign in. Sometimes I wish Holly would use her inside voice a little more but the patients seem to like her enthusiasm so I guess it’s OK. I stand in the door of my office so I can greet them as they sign in.
“I love you, Sister Honora,” says a chubby woman in a tight silver sequined top with a matching hat.
I smile and say, “I love you too, honey.”
As soon as she walks out to the waiting room, I whisper to Holly, “Now who was that?” I just can’t seem to put names with faces Holly remembers all their names. And for these people who go through most of their lives anonymously, this is a gift. “You know my name?” they say to her and smile, despite their lack of teeth.
But just because I don’t remember their names, doesn’t mean I don’t see them. They’re not invisible to me like they probably are to most of the people they come across in life. When they come up to the counter, I sometimes go over and take their hands or put my arm around their shoulders. I just seem to know which ones to approach. Usually, when I do this, if it’s a woman, she’ll start to cry and then tell me about some problem she’s having. If it’s a man, he’ll just start to talk. I’ll tell them to sit down at the blood pressure table and I’ll sit down with them and listen.
Today this woman told me she was going to go home and take her own life because she’s tired and her daughter doesn’t understand her and she just can’t go on anymore. I make her promise to call 911 and take an ambulance to the ER as soon as she gets home. I’ll call later and make sure she got help. Another man’s roommate kicked him out of the house in the middle of the night. He was waiting at the clinic with a couple bags of his stuff when we got here this morning. I call one of my Brother friends at the Monastery. He’ll come over later and find the man a place to stay. I like to say we’re a full service dental clinic. When it comes to patients, no matter what the problem, I can usually find a solution. Well, not me exactly. Someone Else is in charge.
When all the patients are gone, it’s time to eat. Dr. Bob is really surprised by the party. For as many years as we have been celebrating his birthday, he always gets surprised. He tells me this is the best soup and cake he has ever tasted. I knew he would like it. After the new candle plays the birthday song about fifty times, Dr. Bob accidentally pushes it deep into the cake. It won’t play anymore but that’s OK. It only cost a dollar.
Imelda tells me Dr. Bob got her an interview at the Dental School. She needs to attend Dental School in the states before she can be licensed here. I wish Dr. Bob wouldn’t be so darn helpful. We need Imelda here, despite her big mouth.
I have some reports to finish on the computer before I leave. I don’t trust computers. Computers move things around and lose them. I can’t stand that.
“Holly,” I call out, “Would you please give me a hand? I can’t find my monthly reports.”
Holly comes teetering in and bends over my desk. The smell of her perfume is overpowering.
“Holly,” I say, “Remember I told you about wearing all that perfume in the clinic? It might make some patients sick.”
She grabs the mouse and starts clicking. Windows start popping up all over the place.
“Holly, slow down. I told you, I need to be able to understand what you’re doing so I can do it myself.”
“Remember, I showed you this? ” says Holly. “All you have to do is right click.”
“And I told you I don’t like to right click. If you can’t show me another way, then never mind, ” I say. “I can do this another time.”
Holly stays behind as I leave my office.
When I start to feel tired, like maybe I’m not so young anymore, I go to the supply room, my favorite place in the whole clinic. I look around the room. Every door on every cupboard is labeled with its contents. I open a cupboard. Inside, every shelf is labeled. On the shelves, there are bins and every bin is labeled. I sit at the counter. On the counters, there are binders of forms for every purpose. There are guide books and rule books. When I sit in this room, more than in any other place in the clinic, I feel at peace. I find rest amidst the beauty of my perfect creation.
The next week, on Tuesday, I go to Mass before work. When I arrive at the clinic, Holly is at the desk, wearing a skin-tight leopard patterned jumpsuit. Dear Lord, please help Holly buy some clothes in the right size.
I plug in my crock pot full of homemade chicken tortilla soup that I made at ten o’clock last night. I set the tray of homemade brownies on the table next to the crock pot. Holly starts signing in patients and I go into my office and turn on my computer. I read my email. I get one from Mary Ellen, the accounting lady upstairs. She says she got my reports. That’s funny, I don’t remember sending them in.
When the patients leave, we sit down to eat in the break room.
“I had an interview last Friday and I am going to start Dental School in a month, thanks to Dr. Bob, announces Imelda, “Not that I don’t deserve it.”
D rolls his eyes and smiles. He’s probably glad she’s leaving.
Dr. Bob congratulates Imelda and makes another announcement.
“Now that I’m losing my little helper, I think it’s about time for me to pack it up too. Those golf courses aren’t going to play themselves.”
I can’t speak. How can they do this to me? I’m not the crying type, nuns are taught to stay reserved and in control at all times. But inside, I’m human too. Just because I’m a nun doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings. Don’t they know that?
I just sit there until everyone finishes eating. Everyone but Holly goes home and she helps me clean up.
“I’m sorry, Sister,” Holly says. “Maybe we can get another dentist if Dr. Bob leaves. And that deal with the IRS will probably fall through anyway. I wouldn’t trust the government to honor any deal they make. ”
I pack up my crock pot and drive home. I fall asleep on the couch. When I wake up I work on my jigsaw puzzle for a while and then eat some of the leftover chicken tortilla soup for supper. Then I start making my special lasagna for clinic the next day. This recipe calls for ground beef but they don’t carry that at the Dollar Store so I use SPAM and no one’s the wiser. They love the salty flavor.
As for the clinic, not to worry. Things always work out because Someone Else is in charge.
When I get to the clinic the next day, Imelda is already there and she’s smiling. She’s quite beautiful when she smiles. I only wish she would do it more often.
“Good mooooorning,” she says in her Albanian accent.
“Good morning, Imelda,” I say, ‘And what makes you so chipper this morning?”
“And what is schipper?” she asks.
“Chipper just means happy,” I say.
“Oh, well then,” she says, “George’s parents want to make me a party for getting into Dental School and I want you to come. It’s this Saturday.”
“Why thank you, I’d be honored,” I say.
“Great, here are the directions to the house. It starts at four o’clock.”
Imelda and her husband George live with Georges’ parents in the remote suburbs. Imelda invites everyone at the clinic to her party, even D. She must be in a good mood.
On Saturday, I arrive at Imelda’s house at a little after four and am escorted into the living room. Her mother-in-law and father-in-law and grandmother are seated on the couch. They nod and smile but don’t say anything.
“They don’t speak English,” Imelda explains.
A large glass-door breakfront covers one wall of the room. The shelves are crowded with silver and gold plates on stands and gold-leafed figurines. Large lamps with fringed gold shades cover each end table. The couch is upholstered in gold and silver damask. The carpet is white and immaculately clean. I can see the pride in their eyes, as I look around the room.
I am relieved when Holly shows up. Someone else who speaks English. She is in uniform wearing a tight red skirt and plunging blouse with high heels to match. Imelda’s father-in-law seems to appreciate her sense of style. Holly notices his admiration and smiles.
“Howdy do!” she says and wriggles onto the couch.
George explains the party is in the basement but we will wait for the other guests before going down there. Finally Dr. Bob arrives.
“Well I guess we can go downstairs now, “Imelda announces.
“What about D?” I ask. “Shouldn’t we wait for him?”
“He probably won’t come. I just invited him to be polite anyway,” Imelda says.
Just then the doorbell rings. George opens the door and D walks in.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he says. “The city busses don’t come out here. I had to transfer to the suburb bus and then I got on the wrong one. But eventually I figured it out.”
He looks around and smiles his big D smile to the people on the couch. They smile back with their big Albanian smiles.
“Nice house,” he says.
“Thanks,” Imelda smiles, despite herself and we follow her to the basement.
We are served from a buffet of food prepared by Imelda and her mother-in-law. Everyone loves the food. I appreciate the effort but I would prefer to know what I’m eating and when I ask what something is, Imelda never seems to find the English word for it. All in all, it makes be a bit nervous. George shows videos of their wedding on a TV set in the corner. They had a wedding that lasted two days so we never run out of scenes to watch.
Finally, when the meal is finished, Imelda sits down between Dr. Bob and me.
“I have a favor to ask,” she says. “My cousin has just completed Dental School in Italy and will come to the US next week. Could you give him my job at the clinic? He is very good and hard-working, just like me. But, without the experience like I had, he will probably never get into US Dental School.”
I look at Dr. Bob.
“Well,” says Dr. Bob, ” I was going to retire since you were leaving but I guess I could stay on a little while longer to help out another worthy such as yourself. And, to be honest, I haven’t been sleeping well. That look on sister’s face when I said I would retire, the one she has on her face right now, has haunted my dreams.”
Whatever is he talking about? Holly accuses me of giving “that look” at times but I am sure she is mistaken as well. As I said, nuns are trained not to reveal their emotions and I have had fifty years of practice.
Dr. Bob goes on. ” My own son will retire from dentistry next year and I think I have almost convinced him to take over my place at the clinic when he does.”
Now I think my heart would explode although I am sure my face reveals nothing.
The next Tuesday, I attend Mass at the monastery. I spot the director in the first pew. All during mass, I pray I can find the right words. As soon as mass ends, I rush down the aisle to catch him before he leaves.
“Good morning,” I say in my most cheerful voice.
“Good morning,” he replies. He keeps walking toward the doors.
“I was wondering if I might have a word with you,” I say.
“Of course,” he replies.
We step outside into the sunlight.
“I know you are worried about not having enough money to run the dental clinic, ” I begin,” But I was thinking perhaps we could have silent auction to raise money. The nuns in my order would be willing to make baskets to auction off. We did this for another charity and raised over three thousand dollars.”
“Sister, I truly appreciate your offer and your dedication. But three thousand dollars will hardly cover the operational expenses for a month. We had been counting on the proceeds from the annual telethon but with this depressed economy, we just haven’t been bringing in enough money. As you probably know, we haven’t even been able maintain the building properly. I cringe every time I see that peeling paint. I am sorry but there is nothing else we can do.”
“I see,” I said, “Well, thank you for listening.”
I walked back to my car hoping my nun face is intact.
I need to think. As I drive down Rosa Parks Drive, I pull my car over and park in front of the Rebirth Project.
I must be in deep in thought because I am suddenly startled by a tapping sound on my passenger-side window.
“Are you OK lady?”
I look up to see a remarkable man peering in at me. Aside from the dreadlocks, he looks just like Jesus with a long beard and a kind face. Then I realize I have seen this person before. He is the so-called artist of the Rebirth Project. I have seen his picture in the newspaper and on TV. He is Malcolm.
“I’m OK, just thinking,” I say.
“Care to talk about it?” Malcolm asks.
For some reason, maybe the same reason I know whom to approach in the Dental Clinic, I know by instinct I can trust this man. I get out of my car and we walk to one of his decorated houses and sit on the stoop. I tell him the story of the Dental Clinic from start to finish. He just listens, like I do with patients in the clinic.
“Do you like art, Sister?” Malcolm asks.
What a strange question. Maybe he has not been listening at all! Well, I’ll answer the question. Being a nun, I really can’t lie.
“Some art,” I say.
“Do you like my art?” Malcolm asks.
“What do you think the purpose of art is, Sister?” Malcolm asks.
“To see the beauty in the world,” I say.
“OK, I can work with that,” Malcolm says. “I think I can create some art to make you see the beauty in the world.”
Dear Lord, Malcolm is such a nice man, but his so-called art is a mess. I really don’t see how this can work.
“Are you willing to trust me?” Malcolm asks.
I guess I have nothing to lose at this point. If he wants to paint me a picture to make me feel better, that’s awfully nice of him and I suppose God would forgive me a little white lie if I say I like it.
“Sure,” I say, “Thanks for taking the time to listen. I feel much better now.”
“No problem. I’ll get you that artwork.”
I get in my car and drive to the clinic. The week at the clinic goes by as usual and I don’t hear from Malcolm. Maybe he forgot to paint me that picture. It’s probably for the best. I really don’t like to have to lie, even if it’s just a little white one. I leave for the weekend.
The next Tuesday, I attend Mass at the Monastery and drive past the Rebirth project. I think about Malcolm and smile. Then I pull up to the clinic. I can’t believe my eyes!
Instead of a big green building, I see a big green building splattered with paint from top to bottom! In front there are giant piles of toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste that must have been dumped from a truck. The large sign from the Rebirth project is propped against the wall. Below the words, “Out of decay, comes Hope!” are written the words “Save our Dental Clinic.” I laugh out loud as I click the opener to the parking lot and drive in.
Holly and D are already standing in front of the clinic.
“Praise be to God!” Holly says as I walk up.
“Jesus , this is sweet.” says D.
“Watch your language, D,” I say but I’m not really mad. If Jesus were here, he probably would think it was sweet.
The police are here. I guess the people upstairs were not too happy about being “vandalized” like this. I think the paint splatters may actually look better than the peeling paint. I wonder if they made the director cringe.
The newspapers and TV crews show up in the afternoon. It ‘s like a circus and the people upstairs are not happy, at first. The director comes down to talk to the reporters. He looks uncomfortable and explains why they are closing the clinic. Then the reporters ask how people can help and the director gives them the phone number – just like in the telethon. In the next few weeks, they get so many calls pledging money, they raise enough to run the clinic for a whole year. They cancel the lease with the IRS. Because of all the publicity, I even get a few calls from dentists wanting to volunteer. And some of them were so young I don’t have to holler into the phone to be heard.
Malcolm was right. His art can make me see the beauty in the world.
That night I go home and fall asleep on the couch. When I wake up I work on my jigsaw puzzle and I eat a little supper. Then I make the food for the clinic the next day. This is a real challenge. I am planning to make a seven-layer salad but it calls for lettuce on the bottom. I guess I will have to use frozen spinach instead. It has a better texture anyway.