Kathy Anderson ~ Airport Wine Bar

It was their own damn fault for day­time drink­ing. You don’t wave wads of cash around in front of a wom­an who can’t afford to buy the drug that keeps her alive and not expect her to grab it as fast as she can.

The first cou­ple she stole from was so nice. Ali and Amina from Kazakhstan. Marnie would nev­er for­get them. They were inex­pe­ri­enced trav­el­ers, very con­fused about US dol­lars. Marnie relaxed them first, got them to trust her. She rushed to wait on them. She kept the wine flow­ing. She leaned in and laughed with them like they were old chums. Then she added $100 to their bill, just like that. 100 US dol­lars equals around 34036.00 Kazakhstani tenge, so no won­der they were con­fused. They paid up and she put $100 in her pock­et. I just have to find nine more peo­ple to rob before the end of the mon­th, Marnie cal­cu­lat­ed.

$1,000 a mon­th. That’s what it will take to keep Marnie alive. She’s been a server for thir­ty plus years, since they used to call wom­en like her wait­ress­es and host­esses. She’s worked in din­ers, bars, cafes, lun­cheonettes, and restau­rants. She has health insur­ance, but there’s a catch.

Marnie has a con­di­tion, which is unnamed here because what’s the dif­fer­ence real­ly. She’s death­ly ill and the con­di­tion is incur­able. But her life could be extend­ed indef­i­nite­ly with this drug, which is unnamed here because what’s the dif­fer­ence real­ly. It’s the drug that was specif­i­cal­ly devel­oped to keep peo­ple like Marnie alive. Well, the upshot of this sto­ry is that the health insur­ance com­pa­ny has a list of approved drugs for Marnie’s con­di­tion but the one drug that will keep her alive is not on this list and her doc­tor doesn’t know why it isn’t and Marnie doesn’t know why it isn’t, but it isn’t. So the insur­ance com­pa­ny will not pay the $1,000 per mon­th that will keep her alive.

She had already tried all the oth­er drugs the health insur­ance com­pa­ny would pay for. The drugs didn’t work on her. She was dying by the min­ute. Her boun­cy blonde hair fell out so much that she couldn’t wear it in her usu­al pony­tail. She lost more weight every day. She couldn’t work. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t get out of bed.

Finally her doc­tor pre­scribed the drug not on the approved list from the health insur­ance com­pa­ny (like a Hail Mary pass in foot­ball) and it worked instant­ly. She got out of bed, she stood up, she ate, and she went back to work with­in a week as a server in the Vino-licious Wine Bar of the Philadelphia International Airport. Her hair grew back dur­ing her first mon­th on the drug. She felt like a kid on Halloween with a bag full of good­ies every time she popped that pill. She start­ed look­ing like her­self again, a busty 52-year-old white wom­an who drew her eye­brows on every morn­ing.

Marnie was not ready to die. She still woke up many morn­ings throb­bing from sex dreams that juiced her up and made her hap­py. In her dreams, her mouth was wide open and her breasts hung large and lus­cious. Her body was her favorite part, bet­ter than her mind and her soul. Her mind drove her crazy with its wor­ry­ing and fears. Her soul was uncon­trol­lable, always yearn­ing for god knows what.

Only her body could be sat­is­fied, with reg­u­lar dos­es of food, wine, and sex. She favored pudgy men who told jokes, who brought food and wine to her apart­ment and stayed overnight so they could have sex both at night and again the next morn­ing, a bonus round. She loved the men pass­ing through her life with their grate­ful faces. They were so easy to please and they made her hap­py too. She enjoyed the heck out of her life and she was going to bust her ass to keep on liv­ing.

But how was she going to pay for her med­i­cine?

No wor­ries,” said Joie, Marnie’s doctor’s billing assis­tant. “The phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny that makes the drug has a char­i­ty foun­da­tion for peo­ple like you.” Marnie only made $18,080 last year, so she will def­i­nite­ly qual­i­fy. No ques­tion about it. Joie will per­son­al­ly help Marnie work this out.

So Marnie applied for the big phar­ma company’s char­i­ty pro­gram right away. Then she wait­ed. No word. No res­o­lu­tion of her case. She sent all the paper­work again. She sent reg­is­tered let­ters. She called the hospital’s patient advo­cates. She called the hospital’s social work­ers. She called the pres­i­dent of the hos­pi­tal. She called the state med­ical asso­ci­a­tion. She even called her con­gress­man. Finally, she got a denial of her claim. We are over­whelmed with char­i­ty requests and have exceed­ed our allo­ca­tions for the fore­see­able future.

But I’m going to die with­out that med­i­cine,” Marnie said to Joie, the only one involved in this sto­ry who would still look her in the eye.

Other peo­ple set up GoFundMe or Indiegogo accounts and ask for the mon­ey from friends and strangers. They call it crowd­fund­ing,” Joie said.

Indie what what?”

Look, I’ll show you,” Joie said.

Marnie didn’t know much about com­put­ers. She looked over Joie’s shoul­der as Joie went online. A Kidney for Kenny. Help Lou Ann Get New Knees. Have a Heart – Give to Art’s Transplant Fund. Don’t Let DeeDee Die. A New Face for Faraji. Larry Needs a Lung. 

In this coun­try.” Marnie couldn’t believe it. “Americans beg­ging for their lives. I thought that only hap­pened in India or Africa.”

Lots of peo­ple give small amounts to strangers. It adds up. People are good. People are kind. They like to give direct­ly to peo­ple in need because they don’t trust the big non-prof­its. They want to reach out and give it right to you,” Joie said.

That’s beg­ging. I can’t do that,” Marnie said. “I work for my mon­ey.”

Well, do you have a church? Some peo­ple ask their church­es to throw them bake sales and fundrais­ers. Like a Beef and Beer Benefit. A Fun Run,” Joie said.

I don’t have a church. I can’t start up with all that now,” Marnie said. “It’s too late.”

Joie cried and hugged her. “I’ll pray for you. Shame on us. Shame on the United States of America. It’s bad enough you have this dis­ease. You shouldn’t have to go through shit like this too.”

Joie didn’t give up. She called the insur­ance com­pa­ny even though she was not autho­rized to speak to them. She begged for Marnie. “What do we need to do to get an excep­tion? How do we appeal? This wom­an has tried the drugs you will approve and they sim­ply don’t work for her. She has proof. Her doc­tor will sign an affi­davit. We can send more doc­tor let­ters. Tell me what to do and I will do it. This is the United States of America, where we do not let peo­ple die just because they are poor. This is the United States of America, where we have the best health care in the world. Isn’t it?”

The health insur­ance com­pa­ny work­ers had a phone script and they kept read­ing from it, every time she called. They told her to keep fill­ing out the same forms she and Marnie had already sub­mit­ted. They told her to re-apply but no one offered any hope of a quick res­o­lu­tion. There was no spe­cial form for peo­ple on the brink of death.

Joie tried and tried before she gave up. She told Marnie, “You know the worst thing. You’re not the only one. Sick peo­ple who could get bet­ter are so dis­cour­aged they just go home and lie down and die. And the insur­ance com­pa­nies keep get­ting away with it.”

Marnie con­sid­ered beg­ging. But she loved to work. She had been a work­er since she was six­teen. Begging was for drunks on the street, for home­less guys who wrote their sto­ries on card­board box­es. It was for peo­ple who couldn’t work, for hope­less addicts and men­tal­ly ill peo­ple who heard voic­es. She wasn’t one of them. She couldn’t do it.

She went back to work at the wine bar in the inter­na­tion­al ter­mi­nal of Philadelphia International Airport, with two weeks to go before she ran out of pills. The first $100 from Ali and Amina from Kazakhstan came easy. She took that as a sign to con­tin­ue. She wait­ed and watched for her next chance to steal.

Hello Sisters. Marnie was hap­py to wel­come a group of old nuns from a clois­tered con­vent on a final pil­grim­age to Lourdes. They weren’t used to trav­el­ing, han­dling mon­ey, or drink­ing. A tri­fec­ta. So Marnie kept fill­ing their glass­es and they kept drink­ing like it was free wine at Mass. She gave them a hand­writ­ten bill because how the hell would they know how it’s usu­al­ly done. They hadn’t been out in the world for decades. They pulled out crum­pled bills from their secret pouch­es and Marnie pock­et­ed $200 that she nev­er rang up on the reg­is­ter. Now she had $300, only $700 more to go.

The next cou­ple she stole from was so ner­vous about trav­el­ing that they guz­zled wine like bar­bar­ians at a ban­quet. Suzy and Bettina, a butch/femme les­bian cou­ple from the Czech Republic. They told her they were using up their US cash in the wine bar. When their bill came, Bettina didn’t even look at it. She spread her US dol­lars out on the table like they were mean­ing­less pieces of paper. Marnie picked up the cash and pock­et­ed an extra $100 from padding their bill.

Now Marnie had $400, only $600 to go. She felt strong and cen­tered. She was in self-defense mode, like she was suc­cess­ful­ly kick­ing a would-be rapist in the balls. It felt right to fight. She was raised to stand up for her­self, to work hard. Her female rel­a­tives were farm wom­en, fac­to­ry work­ers, wom­en who worked in laun­dro­mats and lun­cheonettes and chick­en pro­cess­ing plants, wom­en who cleaned motels and gas sta­tions. She came from a long line of wom­en who didn’t give up when things got tough.

Come on down, Swallows Family. They were a big fam­i­ly on their way to vis­it a dying grand­moth­er on the Isle of Man. They start­ed out half sloshed already from drink­ing on the plane and they ordered bot­tle after bot­tle of wine dur­ing their lay­over. Plus they ordered lots of over­priced tapas dish­es, start­ing with dou­ble and triple orders of grilled lamp pops ($28), arti­choke goji berry hum­mus ($18), sushi slid­ers ($21), grass-fed beef balls ($22), and char­cu­terie nib­bles ($19). Their final bill was a whop­ping $343. Then Marnie added a mas­sive tip for her­self on their cred­it card after they left, turn­ing their $50 tip into a $200 one.

Now Marnie had $600, only $400 more to go. Her ace in the hole was that the­se peo­ple were all on their way to some­where in a hur­ry. They would end up back home weeks lat­er with a mound of receipts and what were the odds that they’d scru­ti­nize each one and get back in touch with a wine bar in a Philadelphia air­port when some­thing didn’t look right.

It got eas­ier every time. She stalked the weak, the exhaust­ed, the igno­rant, the fright­ened, the care­less, and the drunk, and there were many of them in an air­port wine bar. She lift­ed wal­lets from purs­es and snitched cash right out from under their noses. She learned to ring up dou­ble bills and even got sloshed peo­ple to sign cred­it card slips twice, say­ing, “Oh that one mal­func­tioned, would you please sign again?” And they did it. Soon Marnie had $800, then $900.

Only $100 to go. It was the last day of the mon­th. Tomorrow she’d go to the hos­pi­tal phar­ma­cy to get her med­i­cine and buy anoth­er mon­th of her life. The air­port wine bar was full as usu­al. But Marnie couldn’t pick up the vibe she need­ed from the trav­el­ers for the first hour, then the sec­ond and third hours of her shift. She felt pan­ic rise in her like she was stand­ing on a beach watch­ing a tsunami wave head­ed her way. She had four more hours, which should be more than enough time. But that day the wine bar was filled with sober, hap­py, com­pe­tent peo­ple who kept their hands curled around their wal­lets.

Marnie fought off pan­ic by fin­ger­ing the pack­et of cash she kept stashed in her pock­et in a ziplocked plas­tic bag. It felt so sub­stan­tial. It was her anchor to this world. She leaned again­st the kitchen back wall, closed her eyes. I Want to Live! That made her laugh. I’m los­ing my mind. That old corn­ball Susan Hayward movie, who knew that was stuck inside me. Then she took a deep breath and went back to work.

Finally, a very old lady came in reek­ing of anx­i­ety, send­ing off fumes of ter­ror, and look­ing around fran­ti­cal­ly. “I thought my son was going to meet me here, but I can’t find him any­where.”

You sit right here, dear, let me take your suit­case and park it right over here,” Marnie said. “You can see every­one walk­ing by. You’ll sure­ly see your son when he gets here. Now do you have a phone with you? We can call him.”

The wom­an shook her head no. I bet you do, Marnie thought. I bet he gave you a phone and showed you how to call him. And you for­got. Because you’re for­get­ting a lot of things the­se days, aren’t you. Poor old soul. 

Don’t you wor­ry. He’s going to find you. Now sweet­heart, what can I bring you while you wait for him? How about if I per­son­al­ly sug­gest a nice wine for you?” Marnie brought over the most expen­sive bot­tle of cham­pag­ne and filled the woman’s glass up to the top, watched her gulp it down. She refilled the old woman’s glass quick­ly.

I bet you’re hun­gry, aren’t you? The food on those planes is noth­ing to get excit­ed about, am I right? So I’m going to bring you a few dish­es, while you wait. The best thing on our menu is this grilled octo­pus sal­ad and it goes great with brie en croute, just a fan­cy way of say­ing the best melt­ed cheese you’ll ever taste in all your life,” Marnie said.

The wom­an kept nod­ding. She drank most of the cham­pag­ne as if she had been wan­der­ing in a desert and it was the best water she ever tast­ed. Then she gen­tly low­ered her head down to the bar table. Her glassy eyes looked up at Marnie, who smiled back at her.

You just relax there, dear,” Marnie said. “That’s fine.”

Marnie rang all of the items up twice, slid the bill under the woman’s hand. “Hon, can I help you with your wal­let?”

The wom­an stared at her blankly as Marnie removed her wal­let from her purse and walked with it to the back of the bar. Marnie took an extra $100 out, then brought the wom­an change from her bill. The wom­an mum­bled her thanks.

It was my plea­sure, dear. Now let’s find your son.”

When the air­port secu­ri­ty guard came, Marnie hugged him. It was her old friend Stew, an air­port vet­er­an like her.

Hey man, come back at the end of your shift, okay? Come home with me. It’s a good night to par­ty,” she said.

He beamed back at her. “Can I? Really?”

Yes, pick me up when you get off.” Then Marnie watched him slow­ly walk the old lady down the long ter­mi­nal hall­way to the secu­ri­ty office. He was a good guy. He’d take care of the old lady.

At the end of her shift, Marnie turned out the over­head lights, pulled the gates down, and sat in the back. She told the cook that she was wait­ing for Stew, so she’d close up when he got there. When the cook left, Marnie pulled out her $1000 and count­ed it again, putting it in beau­ti­ful lit­tle piles.

She felt amaz­ing. I have anoth­er mon­th. I have a man com­ing over tonight. Life is good. She felt her body relax again­st the wall of the bar. She slipped off her shoes, wig­gling her toes with relief. She thanked them all silent­ly – Ali and Amina, the nuns, Suzy and Bettina, the Swallows, the very old lady – all the peo­ple who helped her to buy anoth­er mon­th on Earth, all the peo­ple who helped her keep body and soul togeth­er for one more won­der­ful mon­th. She poured her­self a big glass of her favorite Tempranillo and watched the planes take off into the dark­ness, their lights flick­er­ing and flash­ing before dis­ap­pear­ing.

How long would it take before she got caught? She didn’t know. How long could she keep this up? She didn’t know. How long would it take to die with­out those pills? She didn’t know exact­ly. She knew the body held on for a long time if the per­son inside resist­ed. She knew peo­ple who hung on for years with tubes car­ry­ing food in and waste out, with machi­nes pump­ing air in and jump-start­ing organs. She knew peo­ple who hung on when there was no rea­son to, no one wait­ing for them to recov­er. They were afraid to die, that’s why. They were so afraid to die that their bony fin­gers kept on clutch­ing life like they were hang­ing off a cliff.

Are you afraid to die?” Marnie asked Stew late that night.

No. I’ve seen worse things. Are you?”

She thought about it. She held his hand in the dark as they lay on their backs, naked under the sheets.

I’m not afraid of any­thing any­more,” she said.

The next day, she pulled her pre­scrip­tion and stack of cash out and laid them on the hos­pi­tal phar­ma­cy coun­ter. The clerk did not look at her or say a word. He picked up her pre­scrip­tion and walked away from her, dis­ap­pear­ing behind a par­ti­tion.

Marnie wait­ed. She would nev­er walk away from a cus­tomer like that. What kind of scum stalks away from a cus­tomer with­out say­ing, “I’ll be right back with your order,” or some­thing reas­sur­ing to let them know you heard them, that you are going to help them, that every­thing was going to be won­der­ful soon.

Finally the clerk came back, pushed the pre­scrip­tion back at her.

We don’t car­ry this,” he said. “We have to order it.”

How long will that take?”

I have no idea. It’s not on my list.” Like it was too much trou­ble for him to find out. Like it was a big fat bore. Like it was a huge incon­ve­nience.

Marnie’s body took over. She pound­ed on the coun­ter. She kicked the wall. She pressed her face again­st the glass, scream­ing, “You get me that drug this min­ute or I will fuck­ing come in there and kill you.”

The clerk pressed a pan­ic but­ton and a steel par­ti­tion descend­ed between them. The secu­ri­ty guards took Marnie away, kick­ing and scream­ing. Marnie had nev­er felt true rage before in her body. It was like an amphet­a­mine, like the biggest high in the world. She felt super­hu­man strength and pow­er for the first time in her life. She felt like she could run coast to coast, from sea to shin­ing sea, roar­ing the whole way.

The cash. What became of the cash that was left on the coun­ter when the secu­ri­ty guards dragged Marnie away and locked her into a clos­et-sized room, wait­ing for the police to come and arrest her? The clerk gath­ered it up and put it in his locked desk draw­er for safe­keep­ing. He had nev­er stolen so much as a nick­el his whole life. He would vis­it the cash every day until it became his, until the mem­o­ry of the crazy wom­an scream­ing at him and threat­en­ing to kill him fad­ed away, until Marnie rolled over and died in her cell.

~

Kathy Anderson is the author of Bull and Other Stories (Autumn House Press, 2016), a short sto­ry col­lec­tion that won the 2015 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. Bull and Other Stories was longlist­ed for The Story Prize, 2016 and is cur­rent­ly a final­ist for the 2016 Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, the 2016 Lambda Literary Awards, and the 2016 Foreword INDIES Awards. Recent short sto­ry pub­li­ca­tions include Jabberwock Review, Kenyon Review Online, Tahoma Literary Review, and Barcelona Review. She is also a play­wright, with plays pro­duced and staged in the US and in Ireland. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.