En Vidrio

Dan Holden's Creative Writing

A Downey Thanksgiving

It was an old scam. Kathy had seen it many times before.

A nurse or, more likely, a temp agency staffer, learns some randomly interesting facts about someone in a rest home, or an invalid in a private house. Then they use that information to work their way into a deeper friendship with the elder, eventually gaining control of bank accounts or defrauding the courts into giving them a power of attorney.

According to the records that her social services staff had passed up to her, Kathy knew that this woman Key had been perpetrating the fraud for more than three years.

That was unusual; most elder abusers rip off their charges within a matter of weeks and move on before anyone notices.

Kathy surmised that Key’s prolonged presence in the man’s home was brought on by a need for more money. Like many other home health care workers, Key was from southeast Asia, and ripping off elders is an easy way to get money to return home after a failed marriage or just for an extended visit. They use the elder’s home address for a passport and other vital requirements of the trip.

Kathy passed Disneyland as she always does, without even noticing until she saw the “come again soon” signs. She glanced at her route finder; a few more miles to Downey.

She mentally reviewed what she had read in the files. The elder in this case was an 87-year-old partially blind, diabetic man named Robert Horstman, who was supposed to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Supposed to be, because every case is different and while some can hang on to their mental faculties for years, others can slip into invalid status in a matter of weeks, months at best.

Kathy guessed that Key must have sensed his vulnerability and stayed with him in hopes of a big payoff when he died.

Elder abuse isn’t always physical, Kathy reminded herself. More often it is expressed as misuse of the patient’s property or finances. It’s called abuse because typically, the victims are completely unable to defend themselves or even seek help. Sometimes they don’t even know what is happening around them.

Mr. Horstman had been a resident of Downey for many years. Records indicated that he was born in Trier, Germany, and had a sister named Pauline, but no one was sure where she was. She disappeared sometime during World War II and was never heard from again. So he came to this country, by way of Marrakech Morocco in the 1950s.

A gifted mathematician and scientist, Horstman worked at the Rockwell plant, and later at NASA during the run-up to the Apollo space program. Few people outside of Downey knew that the Apollo program began there, but when it all came to an end, Rockwell and NASA folded up shop, leaving a huge hole in the area’s economy.

Horstman was fortunate enough to transfer his skills to Downey’s other major employer, The Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center, where he applied his electronics knowledge to improving artificial limbs for amputees. He was widely admired for his innovative use of electronics in designing and testing new devices.

Then, in the late 1980s, he suffered a debilitating stroke, and went from employee to patient, learning how to walk, talk and use his arm all over again. He was forced out of the company altogether in 1990 and spent the last two decades living in one of the area’s quaint Gingerbread houses, carefully spending a greatly diminished retirement payout and an even smaller disability check.

Carefully, that is, until the Alzheimer’s set in a few years ago.

His neighbors were the first to notice. He would back his old Chevelle out of his driveway and into the street, and then promptly turn right back in, give a little wave and walk into his house again, forgetting whether he was coming or going. It was a typical symptom of Alzheimer’s, which attacks short term memory first, leaving older memories completely intact.

That’s when Kathy’s social services team first made contact with Mr. Horstman. It wasn’t actually a neighbor who called, but a cashier at the corner market. The cashier said that Uncle Bob – his nickname in the neighborhood – had tried to pay for the same half-gallon of milk three times. Another day, he walked out without taking his groceries. She was afraid he might starve to death if he didn’t take better care of how he spent his meager earnings.

An initial assessment indicated that the cashier may have made the right call. Uncle Bob was having difficulty holding a conversation without slipping into memories of things past, could barely stay on task, and was generally unaware of the date or time. His doctor later confirmed the diagnosis, saying his condition required around the clock care to ensure that he didn’t pose a danger to himself or others.

But without health insurance, Uncle Bob was at the mercy of the social services system, and the best they could do for him was to assign a temporary adult services worker from an agency.

For a while, the arrangement seemed to work. In fact the agency never reported any difficulties at all.

The first real sign of trouble was when a social service worker noticed that the agency stopped reporting on Mr. Horstman’s case. As a contractor to the Adult Services department, they were required to report twice a month on all elders under their care in Los Angeles County.

It took a skilled worker to notice the discrepancy, but there it was, and when she reported this fact to Kathy, the ball was set in motion for renewed engagements with Uncle Bob.

The first contact came in the form of a phone call to Uncle Bob. They phone was answered by a woman who called herself Key Nguyen. She claimed to be an agency worker, but when she couldn’t answer some basic questions about the agency, the social service worker red-flagged the conversation.

Next, a worker went to visit Uncle Bob on a day when the worker should have been there, but only Mr. Horstman was in the home. He sat anxiously in his armchair, unsure of who the social worker was or why she was in his house, while they waited for her to arrive. After 45 minutes, the social worker got up and prepared a glass of milk and a sandwich, placed them on a side table for Uncle Bob, and left. At that point, the case was turned over to Kathy for decisive action.

So now here it was, Thanksgiving day, and Kathy was on the road. The exit into Downey presented Kathy with a bright reminder of the season. Leaves on the great maples and elms were changing color, some yellow, brown or red, creating a colorful tunnel of foliage through the streets ahead.

“Everything changes,” she thought.

It was true of her job, too. Social services is as much art as anything else. While there are plenty of rules and guidelines, in the final analysis, the judgment that a worker makes about a situation can make the difference between a massive intervention and a slap on the wrist. A single worker’s observations or recommendations can mean the removal of a child from a household or an adult from a home. How the worker sees the situation is extremely important.

Kathy made plenty of good decisions, which allowed her to rise to head of the adult services department. But she quietly knew that she had made mistakes, too, and regret ran deep in her bleeding social worker heart. Those difficult lessons taught her to avoid a rush to judgment no matter how obvious the situation seemed at the outset. Still, she thought the case was important enough that she should make a welfare check on this holiday.

Glancing at her direction finder, Kathy knew she was only a couple of blocks away from Mr. Horstman’s home now.

The neighborhood was nice enough: Street after street of orderly, tidy Gingerbread houses, in the neatly arranged style of the 1950s. On one narrow street, every other home sported an ancient Elm; on the next street over, it would be a towering palm. The organization was impeccable, reflective of the caliber of the people who lived there all their lives.

She passed the market where Horstman – Uncle Bob – shopped for his groceries. She was within walking distance of his house now. She felt anxiety rising within her, as it always did when she approached a situation for the first time. Would Uncle Bob be ok? Would she need to call an ambulance? Would the mysterious Key Nguyen be there? Would she be combative or difficult? Infinite possibilities flashed in front of her.

Uncle Bob’s house was a cute little pink place on one of the palm-lined streets. It sported a shared driveway and a modest renovation that made the front only slightly larger than it had been. She passed the place slowly and kept going, craning her neck to see the back, but an old weathered fence blocked her view.

She turned around at the bend in the street and circled back, parking on the street in front of the house.

In cases such as this, the perpetrator could actually be considered a criminal, Kathy thought, and from deeper in her mind came the admonishment, “you should have brought a gun.”

But as a social worker, Kathy had no power to make an arrest. She hoped whoever this Key girl was, she wouldn’t overreact and cause the situation to blow out of control.

Turning off the SUV, her world suddenly became very quiet. She had only her own thoughts and anxieties to deal with.

Pulling out her notebook, she made a note, “12:35, arrived at Robert Horstman residence in Downey.” She put the notebook back in her purse, opened the door and rounded the car to the house.

History came up in her mind. Memories of family members shouting, doors slamming, babies crying. She had been through so many situations in so many neighborhoods, she couldn’t begin to remember them all without slipping them into mental categories like, “disaster,” “abuser,” “cops called,” and more.

But this time the house was quiet. The neighborhood was quiet. Except for the comforting smell of Thanksgiving dinners blowing down the street, nobody seemed to be anywhere. She wondered if this visit would be a miss.

She walked into the tiny doorway, glancing at her reflection in the glass of the door as she rang the bell. Kathy was tall and black, with short wavy hair and elegant long legs. She could have been an executive or a model or anything she wanted to be, she supposed. But something drew her to social services, and her wisdom drew her into management…

The door inched open slowly and an Asian woman’s face peeked around it, eyes wide open.

“Can I help you?” she asked suspiciously.

“My name is Kathy Johnson, I am with Adult Social Services, I am here to check on Mr. Horstman,” said Kathy, as matter-of-factly as she could. “May I come in?”

“But it’s Thanksgiving,” said the woman in her best English. “We’re having dinner.”

“That’s fine,” said Kathy as she stepped forward, “this won’t take long.”

The woman started to protest, but instead stepped back and allowed the door to swing open.

The front room was immaculate. Everything was clean and put away, as if it were a model home. As if no-one lived there.

Kathy turned to question the woman and was momentarily stunned by what she saw.

Key had a prosthetic arm and leg on one side of her body.

“Won’t you come in,” said Key worriedly, motioning forward.

“Thank you,” said Kathy, her mind suddenly dizzy.

Kathy walked ahead, through the small entryway to the kitchen and breakfast nook, which spilled beyond into a living room. The rooms were all brightly lit with light windows and sunroofs. The kitchen was full of Thanksgiving food in various stages of preparation. Key appeared to be making dinner by herself.

Mr. Horstman sat in the living room, watching a television with the volume set low. He didn’t appear to know that Kathy was there.

“I’m making dinner,” said Key, “I hope you excuse me. Uncle Bob – Mr. Horstman – is over there, I can introduce if you wish. He don’t know if you are stranger, he barely remember who I am any minute.”

“And who are you?” asked Kathy, extending her hand. She realized as she did so that she was offering to shake Key’s prosthetic hand, which was just a double hook. She looked awkwardly to Key, but by this time Key had already offered her good hand in return.

“My name it Key,” said the woman. “Mr. Horstman is good friend from many year ago. I come here to pay back, to help him.”

Kathy put her purse on a chair behind the counter and began to take off her jacket.

“You can hang that in the closet over there,” said Key.

“Thank you,” said Kathy, suddenly warming to the familiar Thanksgiving smells in the house. “Can I help you with this?”

“Oh, sure,” said Key, glancing around to see what needed to be done. “You could chop up some celery I think. There knife in that draw.”

“Okay,” said Kathy. She pulled out the knife and set it on a butcher block. She picked up the celery, rinsed them in the sink, and then set them down and began chopping. “Tell me about Uncle Bob,” she said, not looking up from her work. “Is he doing ok?”

“No,” said Key matter-of-factly. “He losing his mind. He don’ remember from one minute to next what he doing. But I remind him. He nice man, never do no wrong, he not in danger.”

Key stopped her work and looked up at Kathy.

“But this not really about Uncle Bob is it?” asked Key. “You not sure what I doing here. You worry about me, right?”

“Well, yes,” said Kathy, setting the knife down and turning to speak directly to Key. “He is supposed to be getting professional care, but we have no record of who you are or who you work for. Are you a professional elder caregiver?”

“No, not me,” said Key, her head dropping down. She wiped her hands with a dishtowel and pushed the hair back from her face.

“I come here to USA in 1974 at end of Viet Nam war. They bring me here to Downey, to the Rehabilitation Center. I was 10 year old. My arm and leg blown off nobody know how,” her face flushed and her brow began to sweat as she spoke. She trembled slightly. “I very scared, not know what happening to me. I have no family, no home, no arm and no leg. I want to run away but I can’t. I cry all day, all night.

“They try to make help for me but I so small they don’t know what to do. SO they make me swim lot but I not know how to swim. I scare more. But I stay, I have no place to go,” she said, looking pleadingly at Kathy. “I have four – five foster family, even more number schools. But they all scare of me. They not like my arm and leg, the way people look at me. They alway give me to another family, another school. The Center my home more than anything else.”

“Then, Uncle Bob come to Center. He big NASA man, everybody love him. He very smart, know very much, but he not know about arms and legs,” she laughed, waiving her arms in the air.

Kathy began chopping the celery again as Key mixed the stuffing in a bowl. She was very skilled even with the prosthetic arm.

“Uncle Bob learn how to make prosthetics working with me and a few others. He make things never been done before. He make them better. Now I can walk, now I can pick up a book, now I can comb my hair,” said Key, smiling at the memory. “No more swimming, no more crying. Uncle Bob make me happy again.”

She took the celery from Kathy and mixed it into the bowl. Kathy leaned against the kitchen counter to listen more.

“I leave the center in 1984, twenty year old. Uncle Bob give me this locket as good-bye gift. I have little job I recondition appliances with mental patient at Salvation Army. But I don’t like after a while and I leave there, I don’t know where I go. I don’t know what I do. I think,” she said, lighting up, “I want to go to New York and make wedding dresses in fashion district. I want to be great designer.”

She chuckled at the thought and then just as quickly her face saddened. She turned and began awkwardly cutting slices of meat from the fully cooked turkey.

“I go to Greyhound bus station and give them all my money, everything I had say, ‘get me as close to New York as this take me,’ but the ticket it say Pittsburgh and I no want to go there, I scared. So I put it in my pocket and cry. I don’t know what to do.”

Tears began to form in Key’s eyes and she wiped them away with the back of her good hand.

“I come back to LA and look for work. I work in back of grocery store for twelve year. I have little apartment, little dog, television, I ok. Thing go ok for a while.”

She looked over at Uncle Bob in the corner, quietly watching the TV.

“One day, neighbor come break into my apartment, take everything I have. They beat me and try take my clothes off. They see I no have arm or leg and call me freak. They take everything and leave me there, stuffed behind my bed again wall. I cry all night. Door open, dog run away he never come back. I alone again.

“Now my leg don’t work right, my hand don’t work right, I have to fix. So I come back to center look for Uncle Bob but he gone, not there no more. They say I need fill paper for help but I don’t know what to do. Then lady tell me Uncle Bob live close by come visit him he might like. So I did.”

Key stopped slicing the turkey and looked at Kathy in the eye, her voice lifting with confidence.

“Uncle Bob remember me. He no remember his own name but he remember me and he remember my arm and leg. He say, ‘come in, come in, I help you’. And he did. He fix my hand, he fix my leg.”

She looked at Uncle Bob again, tears streaming down her face.

“I not able to pay Uncle Bob, I never be able to pay him for all he do for me,” she said. “But I try. I take care of him now, I help him do all he do, I make him breakfast, lun and dinner. I comb his hair,” she laughed through her tears. “I can help him now.” She waved her hands as proof.

Kathy smiled a quivering smile, doing her best to hold back her own emotions.

“How do you pay for Uncle Bob’s food?” she asked.

“Uncle Bob he have severance check from work still and he have some government money. I put it in bank for him, I write him check for him. “ She looked around quickly until she spied her own bag. “I have check book, you wanna see?”

“Yes, thank you,” said Kathy. She took the check book from Key’s hooked hand and scanned it quickly. Everything seemed proper and balanced. She handed it back to Key.

“Does he go to the doctor?” asked Kathy, filling a china gravy boat and setting it on the breakfast table.

“Well I can’t dry car,” said Key. “Uncle Bob he not safe to drive car. I hide his keys, but I know where they are.”

“What do you do when he gets sick?”

“He not get sick, not since I been here.”

“What would you do if he did?” asked Kathy.

“I don’t know,” answered Key, looking at her. “Should I call you?”

“Yes,” said Kathy, “Please call me.” Kathy wiped her hands on a towel and handed Key a card from her purse. Then she slung her purse over her shoulder and started toward the door.

“Don’ you want to talk to Uncle Bob?” said Key. “Come I introduce you.”

She took Kathy by the hand and limped into the living room, calling as she approached the old man.

“Uncle Bob! Uncle Bob! I have new fren for you to meet!”

Uncle Bob slowly raised his eyes from the television to Key. He smiled as she approached.

“Hey!” he said, as if meeting her after many years.

“Hello Uncle Bob!” Key cried, also as if they were meeting for the first time in years. “I have fren come to see you Uncle Bob!” She motioned to Kathy.

Uncle Bob shifted his gaze to Kathy.

“Hello Uncle Bob!” she said, smiling.

“Hey!” he said. “You know my friend Key!”

“Yes,” said Kathy, “I know your friend.”

“Well she is one fine young girl,” said Uncle Bob, smiling. “She came all the way from Viet Nam so we could help her. Do you have your notebook?”

“He think you his assistant at Rehabilitation Center,” said Key.

“Yes Uncle Bob, let me go get my notebook,” said Kathy. She motioned to Key to follow her back to the kitchen.

“Will you stay for Thanksgiving dinner?” asked Key. “I make glutten-free pumpkin pie.” She smiled at her suggestion.

“Thank you,” said Kathy. “But I have to get back to my own family.”

As she buckled her jacket, Kathy noticed a single candle on the breakfast table. She fished in her pocket for a book of matches and lit the wick. Then she turned and looked at Key.

“Do you know who Jacqueline Kennedy was?” Kathy asked, looking back at the flickering candle.

“Yes,” said Key, “She was great lady. Her husband great President.”

“Well her husband got our country into the Viet Nam war,” said Kathy, “But that’s not the point.” She looked back at Key, taking in the full expression of the little woman’s being, her long hair and round eyes, her little nose and sad mouth, her strange prosthetic arm hanging in opposition to the smooth and supple good arm, the metal foot half hidden beneath her oversized cooking bib.

“Jackie Kennedy said, ‘I am a woman above everything else.’”

Key looked down at the floor.

“I not much woman,” she said. “I half a woman.”

Kathy placed her hand warmly on Key’s shoulder, and then cupped her chin and lifted it up gently.

“You are more of a woman than many others will ever be,” said Kathy. “And I want to help you believe that. I will be back next week. Take care of Uncle Bob for me, okay?”

“Yes,” said Key, with a ray of hope in her eyes.

Kathy turned and headed toward the door.

“Thank you Miss Johnson,” said Key, reading quickly from the social worker’s card.

Kathy turned to her and smiled.

“Thank you Miss Nguyen,” she responded. “Have a nice Thanksgiving.”

Author’s note: This story was crowdsourced using nearly two dozen props suggested by Facebook friends.

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3 comments on “A Downey Thanksgiving

  1. Dawn skelton
    November 21, 2011

    I loved this story! It made me get emotional and warmed my insides! I wish it was more to read! Im now sitting here wondering what happened to the sweet old man and Key!!!

    • siliconcowboy
      November 22, 2011

      Thank you Dawn! I’m glad you liked it!

  2. Pingback: Writing Destiny: Why I Turned in my Boots and Picked Up a Tablet « Siliconcowboy's Blog

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