Lupita and the Devil
Yesterday it rained while the sun shined. Whenever it that happens, I think of New Orleans. Such a lovely and damned city. But then, all the most beautiful places are in some way cursed. New Orleans is only one of them. But it is certainly one of the loveliest, and certainly one of the most damned.
I worked with a woman named Golden. She was black as coal and lovely. My job was a simple one. I ran the appointment calendar for the specialists in a dentist’s office. It was the professional office attached to the dental school, where all the dentists who taught people to be dentists maintained their practices. I sat behind a window next to Tamara. I was in charge setting and confirming appointments for the endodontists and other oral surgeons. It wasn’t a difficult job. The computer program was the office used was 20 years beyond antiquated; the hardest part was talking on the phone.
“Good morning,” I would say. We always called to confirm the following day’s appointments first thing in the morning. “I’m calling from Dr. Huberstang’s office to confirm your appointment for tomorrow…”
Tamara was in charge of the generalists' appointments. She’d been working there since she was 18. The genteel old women who came in to get their dentures adjusted liked Tamara. They didn’t like me. None of them ever said so, but they treated me like I stole some poor woman’s job. I was big and burly for a receptionist, and the only reason the temp agency offered me the gig was because I’d had a little college and could type 90 words a minute. The old women also liked Tamara because she had been there longer than anyone in the office, except Golden, who had been there longer than anyone — even the office manager Cheryl, who no one really liked, except me, and that was only because we used to flirt with one another. She talked the management into hiring me away from the temp agency that had gotten me the job. It meant a dollar less an hour. But it was a steady paycheck, and I could walk to work along the Bayou St. John (I liked to watch the catfish jump.) from the rooming house where I lived. She also convinced them I didn’t have to wear the lavender colored scrubs everyone else wore, including Tamara. It wasn’t a very manly color, Cheryl said.
I didn’t disagree with her.
Golden used to make fun of the way I talked. She said I had a funny accent. I tried spinning the universal truth that Ohio boys don’t have accents, but she refused to believe me. She’d just cackle a little and smile. “You’re silly,” she’d say in her chiseled Creole accent.
It was possible to set the clock by the summer rain. During the summer, rain fell every day at 3 in the afternoon. It rained at other times, too. But always at three in the afternoon. The humidity built up all day until it reached critical mass. Then every pore in the sky just opened up like an aggravated blister. The rain was hot and didn’t last more than 10 minutes. The cement would sizzle, causing the water to evaporate on contact. What didn’t evaporate was gone five minutes after the rain stopped, and the only evidence that it ever rained were the fat, giant water roaches promenading down the sidewalks like they were the kings and queens of the city.
The woman and her son first came to the office on a Thursday morning. Her English wasn’t great. Her name was Lupita. Her son Manuel was maybe 8 or 9, but he was scrawny and underfed. He had an entire set of teeth growing out of his upper gums, pushing on the teeth he already had. He was in a lot of pain. We had rules, though. Dr. Rattler, one of the more prominent endodontists made it very clear on my first day of work. They did not, as a habit, accept walk-ins. The student office one floor up where the students practiced being dentists did, but not the professional office. I explained that all the oral surgeons were already booked, but that I could set an appointment. She set an appointment for two days from then and left, the son whimpering and holding his mouth.
Every morning Tamara and I called to confirm the next day’s appointments. We made a mark next to each entry in the log to indicate whether we spoke to the patient, spoke to someone besides the patient, left a message on voice mail or answering machine, or were unable to make contact at all. If I was unable to make any direct contact after three calls, the appointment was canceled This wasn’t usually a problem. All of the patients at least had a house phone. Cell phones weren’t as common then, especially among the older crowd of patients who liked to come to the school to get their dentures adjusted.
But when I tried to call Lupita to confirm Manuel’s appointment, the phone rang and rang and rang, then a beep, like voice mail, though there wasn’t any kind of greeting. Then the line went dead. I tried to leave messages, but I was not sure if I did. I asked Tamara what I should do. She told me the doctors were real fussy about their schedules. “They hate no-shows,” she said. “You be better off just canceling it.” So I marked the log as “No Contact” and canceled the appointment.
Lupita showed up the following morning. Manuel was still in a lot of pain. I tried to explain to her that I was forced to cancel the appointment because I couldn’t get in touch with her. I tried explaining but her English was bad and my Spanish was even worse and Manuel was in a lot of pain. The second set of teeth looked sharper, especially the eye teeth, which were so sharp that they were cutting into his gums, causing him to bleed. Tamara jumped in and tried to help me explain it better. I gave her a copy of the new patient paperwork to take with her. I set another appointment and tried to get an alternate phone number. She gave me the same number as before.
This happened two more times. Two more times I called to confirm. Two more times I was unsure if I left a message. Two more times, on Tamara’s advice and concerns over upsetting the oral surgeons, I canceled the appointment. Two more times, Lupita showed up with Manuel. Each time, Manuel’s face was a little more swollen. Each time, the teeth growing out of his gums looked like they were eating him from the inside out. Each time he looked a little more emaciated. Each time I sent them away with a copy of the new patient paperwork and I tried to get a better phone number.
The third time she and Manuel showed up after I was unable to confirm the appointment, she brought someone else — a tall, skinny, severe-looking white woman. After I tried explaining the situation to Lupita again, she flew into a rage, she grabbed Manuel by the jaw and showed me his teeth. The second set was nearly overtaking his normal teeth. “Falling out!” she screamed at me, pointing to his mouth while he struggled under the additional pain caused by her grip. “FALLING OUT!” Then she pointed to the severe looking white woman. “I HAVE TO… MISS WORK!” she yelled at me.
At this point the severe looking woman stepped up and demanded to know why her housekeeper’s son hasn’t been seen yet. I explained that I called to confirm the appointment but was didn’t know whether any of my messages were actually saved.
“It’s policy,” I explained, looking over at Tamara hoping she would jump in and save me. Or at least help. She didn’t. “Unless I’m sure I at least left a message, I was told to cancel the appointments.”
“That’s the most ludicrous thing I ever heard of!” the white woman snapped. “She,” the woman said, pointing to Lupita, “isn’t able to get her work done because she has to keep coming HERE. She isn’t getting paid when she has to ride the bus here, and ride the bus back.”
I was going to ask why she didn’t just pay Lupita so she could take her kid to the doctor, but I didn’t feel like adding to how lousy I already felt. “Is there a better contact number?” I asked. “When I called to confirm each appointment, it just rang and beeped.”
“That’s MY phone!” the white woman snapped. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “There’s no greeting or anything when I call…”
“I don’t want people to know who I am!” the white woman shrieked. “People can call and get information about you and steal your identity.”
By this time Golden, Cheryl, several of the dental assistants, five dental hygienists, and entire oral surgery staff, including doctors, was watching. Tamara had conveniently shrunk behind her computer terminal. Dr. Huberstang looked at the boy and told the mother and skinny white woman to bring Manuel back immediately. Everyone else looked at me like I put that extra set of teeth in his head to torture him for my own amusement.
My hands were shaking. I could hear Manuel screaming from the back, and Lupita talking quickly in Spanish, and her employer standing in as translator and defender of all the gentrified classes. I stepped out from behind the reception window, walked back down the hallway as far as the short side hall that led to an outside door. I stepped out and into the covered area where people usually went to smoke. I lit a cigarette and took a deep breath.
It was raining but the sun was shining, which made the sky an odd mixture of colors that didn’t remind me of any season — even the eternal green summer I had come to associate with living there. Everything was off balance. The seasons. The dentists’ schedules. Me.
I was on my second cigarette when Golden came out to check on me. She bummed a smoke, lit it, and inhaled deeply. Then she blew out a long, slow river of smoke.
“The Devil’s wife must have kicked him out of bed,” she said.
She repeated herself and smiled. Then she patted me on the shoulder and walked back inside.
The sound of Lupita screaming at me echoed in my ears, along with Manuel’s cries. I thought about that second set of teeth. I thought about Lupita’s boss and Tamara shrinking into the corner behind her computer. I listened to the rain and squinted as the sun reflected off each drop. It was blinding and beautiful. I thought, Then he got the better end of that deal.