I get the offer letter for my new job while sitting in the hospital with my grandma. She fractured her hip.
When it comes in, the first thing I think is how abruptly I found this job. It’s been a year set off by my layoff and a cancer diagnosis that left my mom dead by Christmas.
But barely three weeks since I connected on LinkedIn with my old coworker, the HR woman at the company now hiring me, I get this offer letter.
My grandmother sits upright in the hospital bed. She eats from a platter of cubed cantaloupe on the overbed table, popping squares in her mouth one at a time, rolling them with her tongue and sucking out the juice. She spits the pulps into her hand and drops them in a pile on her plate.
The nurse comes in to take vitals. As my grandma works on the fruit, she’s transfixed on the TV above us. It’s tilted so that it’s overlooking the room. CNN is on talking about something terrible Trump said. The nurse asks me when my grandma’s last bowel movement was.
I get close to her ear. “Nena,” I say in Albanian, “when was the last time you went to the bathroom? You pooped?”
“This morning,” she says.
“This morning,” I tell the nurse. I know that, but I want to be as explicit as I can. By hospital rules, I’m not allowed to be my grandmother’s translator. In the morning I told a nurse not to administer anything to her for a few minutes. I was going to grab some breakfast on the first floor.
When I got back a social worker was waiting to lecture me about hospital policy, saying family members can’t serve as translators and the hospital has a special phone for that. I imagined my grandmother staring at a doctor with a phone up to her bad ear. “That’s fine,” I said, “We are open to that option.” She left and I ate my scrambled eggs, twisted and hunched in the visitor’s chair over the windowsill where I rested my tray. Now, not to arouse more fuss, I try to translate as one-to-one and even-handedly as possible.
The nurse drops an orange pill into a small plastic cup. “Stool softener,” she says, holding it out to my grandma.
Grandma looks to me. I tell her what it is. “I don’t want it,” she says. “I’ve been going fine.”
“She doesn’t want it,” I say. “She’s been regular.”
The nurse rolls her eyes like a bored angel in a Pre-Raphaelite painting and turns with a sleepy shrug. She floats to the wall-mounted waste bin and disposes of the pill, which clatters inside.
I look back to the offer letter on my phone. It says I need to sign and send it back by Thursday EOD. Today’s Wednesday. Dad will be back at the hospital by 2pm. I can send it back today, or maybe even tomorrow. What I’m thinking about is just getting back home, and getting some rest.
Not that I didn’t sleep enough. My dad told me to give my grandma a Tylenol PM before bed. I did, and took two myself. We both slept through the night.
By the end of my mom’s six-week stay in the hospital, there was barely a moment during the nights when she didn’t need me to feed her ice chips or use a suction wand to suck out the bile that rose from her stomach into her mouth. When I was able, I would steal away to the reclining chair and strain my eyes shut for a three-minute block of cold sleep.
When my dad gets to the hospital, the occupational therapist is wrapping up a session, packing a sock-wearing aid at the foot of the bed. Grandma doesn’t bother with it, opting instead to bend her knee up to her chest at a precarious tilt so she can slip on her hospital booties.
“What’s up, Baba,” I say.
“Hey Lu,” he responds.
The occupational therapist stuffs a reaching stick into her canvas bag of rehab tools.
“Have a good day,” she says, flashing a squinty smile before slinging the bag over her shoulder.
“Hi, okay, thank you,” he stammers in English, his palm suspended goodbye as she walks out.
He gives my grandma a kiss on the cheek, then sits in a chair where he fiddles with a half-full bottle of Diet Coke.
“How was last night?” he asks. “You sleep? Probably not.” He’s wearing a zipped-up hoodie and a Nike cap with a white check.
“I slept a lot. Six hours. Grandma too. Tylenol PM,” I say with a grin. “I gave her one. But then I took two.”
“Eh huh,” he guffaws.
“Eat this,” my grandma says to me, pointing to the chicken tenders the lunch service brought her. “Hurry up before they take them.” She doesn’t want my dad to eat them.
“Eat them,” my dad says, nodding to the tenders.
“It’s okay, I might start heading back,” I say. “Oh, I got that job.”
“Oh you got it?” He hikes his brows up and angles his head. “Very good. What is it again?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Entertainment news. Kardashians and stuff.”
“Oh yeah?” He smiles softly, twisting the Diet Coke bottle in his hands.
“Yeah, I think it will be good for me. I want to learn how to write fast.”
“That’s good,” he says. He jerks his head twice fast, then looks to my grandma, then out the window.
“Yeah. I have to send the signed employer agreement by tomorrow. So I’ll do that, either tonight or tomorrow.”
“Do that, get it back soon,” he says while gazing out the window, head askance.
“I know, I will.”
I get up and kiss my grandma.
“Okay, I love you. Feel better. The leg’s nothing,” I say.
Last night she cried and asked me if she’d ever be able to walk again. Surprised, I grinned, but catching myself, snapped serious, and softly cupped her bony shoulders with my hands as I got close to her bad ear. “You’ll be getting around soon.”
I hug my dad and take the car keys.
“I’ll see you guys later.”
In the parking lot I squint. I feel like I haven’t seen the sun in days. I pause at the curb by the main entrance, carrying a plastic bag holding my phone charger and water bottle.
The parking lot is massive. Finding the car feels daunting. I imagine myself walking along the endless rows, checking every license plate down the hilled lot and still not finding ours.
I pull the keys from my pocket and double-click the lock button. The Corolla squawks back at me three rows down by a set of concrete stairs. I walk over and start to side-step the hill beside them, but feeling it steeper than it looks, pull back around the handrail and trot down the steps. I wonder how many people have done that before.
In the car, I look down at my clothes. I’m wearing my Nike hoodie. It used to have a blue-green peacock hue but it’s been washed a lot. I used to throw it on for a night out. Now it’s teal. I wear it for hospital stays and buses between Baltimore and New York.
I turn the engine on and look in the rearview mirror. My face stares palely back, wispy curls at my temples, eyes sagged.
On the drive home, the freeway walls whish by. The sun pokes through the trees behind them. It’s all gold-colored, green and brown.
When I pull up to the McDonald’s drive-thru I order and start texting the fellas. Goofing off.
I send short videos. Saying I’m giddy because I’m ordering fast food. Saying I’m listening to emo music from high school. Saying “Kevin O’Leary, AKA Mr. Wonderful.”
“Dude,” I say for one of them, “I’ve been in the hospital for a long time.” I look at the camera, then delete the video.
When my food’s up I pay and say thanks. Pulling away, I take another video of me shoving fries in my mouth, chewing and glancing back at the camera over and over while driving.
Back home I pull the car into the garage and walk in. The linoleum floor is spotted with a few small cracks near the side entrance. I step into the kitchen, where I find a pair of sweatpants slung over a chair at the table, and rest the McDonald’s bag on the counter
Beyond the half wall separating the kitchen, the living room is a dump. The arms of the couch are depressed into a dent, and the carpet is dingy and worn. Throughout the rooms on the first floor, the tropical fuchsia, aqua and canary-yellow paint that felt appropriate when my parents redecorated a decade ago sticks squalidly to the walls.
After kicking off my shoes, I grab a seltzer from the fridge, swipe my food off the counter and head into the living room. The couch is a mess, with sunken cushions and blankets tossed about. I drop the crumbled bag on the TV dinner tray and fluff the pillows that my dad leans into everyday, before leaning into them myself, stretching out on the long sofa with my toes pointing toward the TV.
I rustle the bag open and pull out my food. A McChicken, a McDouble, a large fry and a four-piece nugget. I snap open the tab on the seltzer and take a swig. The cold fizz is refreshing. Although I should have a little more water. I haven’t in a while.
I bite into the chicken sandwich and start mushing the food in my mouth. My face starts to get numb and warm the way it does every time I eat McDonald’s fast. With my free hand, I grab the remote and flip through the channels on Albanian TV.
I land on some movie about a principal having an affair with a student. It’s American with Albanian subtitles, and even though it looks recent, I’m not sure what it is and have trouble paying attention.
I click through a few more. A newscaster reports on claims of fraud in the last Albanian election. Click. A woman reveals the harrowing hardships she and her family face in their remote, underserved village. Click. A husband and wife bandy insults at each other before a matronly judge on a court show.
Click click click. I blank out and after clicking a few more, put the remote down and unwrap my McDouble and bite into it. I then shove a few fries in my mouth, and chew them and the burger all at once. While I wouldn’t say this is where I want to be, it’s somewhere I don’t need to be, and therefore, an immense relief from the hospital, where I had to be since yesterday when I got off the bus. I choose to be here on this couch, eating McDonald’s, watching and thinking nothing at all.
I pull out my phone. No new messages. I rest it on the TV dinner tray in between my two sandwiches, then roll onto my side so my weight presses onto my shoulder. My legs are stacked on top of each other and my cheek sinks into the limp pillows. I reach into the front pocket of my teal hoodie and pull out my dab pen.
With a click, the button lights up blue. I take a puff. A small cough escapes me. I puff it a couple more times. My throat tingles and my head lightens up and I start to relax. For the first time all day, I’m not thinking about hospitals. I forget about my grandma. I forget about the offer letter. I slip the pen back into my pocket, and, for the second time in the last 24 hours, fall asleep in my hoodie and jeans.
When I wake up the orange late-afternoon sun twinkles between the slats on the blinds. I squint through my eyes, then peel them open and start awake with a stiff breath through my nose.
There are a few hours left until I have to go back to the hospital. I imagine my dad in the room, trying to watch TV but getting interrupted by my grandma’s frequent questions. He’s likely shouting responses as she stares at him and nods, even though they both know she can’t hear.
I sit up on the couch and rub my eye with the ball of my palm. The Albanian newscaster’s voice hurts my head. I point the remote to the set and kill the volume.
When I pick up my phone, I see a new email from my soon-to-be boss.
“I heard the fabulous news!” she wrote. “I’m so excited to have you join the team. Please do reply all when you get a chance on the offer letter email so we can spread the word to other staffers about you coming!”
I read the short message over a few times. I stare at the carpet. The room is silent with the TV on mute. I feel the screen flash over me from just a few feet away.
I glance back at my phone. I thought I had until tomorrow to respond, but it sounds like I should get it back sooner. It’s 6pm. I’ll send the letter tonight.
The printer is broken. I’ll go to the Package Place nearby. It closes at 7pm. I’lI walk there, print out the offer letter, sign it and send it back since our printer’s broken.
I push open the door and step inside Package Place.
When I get to the counter and speak, my voice seems to drop to the ground and absorb into the trodden brown carpet like spilled water.
“Hi,” I say to the owner behind the counter. He doesn’t mind waiting a few seconds to respond so he can do a final scan of the printout he’s examining.
I do a quick scan myself. Outgoing packages are unevenly stacked by the door. A large yellowing copy machine rests in the corner. A plastic sleeve of 9‑by-12-inch envelopes is laid on the table.
“How can I help you?” the owner asks in a thick Eastern European accent as he rests his document on the counter.
“I need to print out an offer letter for a new job,” I say. He pulls down his glasses and stares at me with furrowed brows. “If I forward you the email, can you print it out?”
His brows relax to neutral. “Sure,” he nods.
“Okay, great. Thank you.” I blink. “Well, can I have the email?”
He nods again, then turns to his computer and taps the mouse with his hand so the plasma screen flickers on.
As we silently wait together, I try to remember his nationality. I want to say Bosnian, but I know that’s not it. My dad told me once before. My family has come here sporadically over the years, sometimes to mail the occasional package, but mainly to get affidavits notarized.
Every three years, my parents would hand write permission on blank printer paper authorizing my mom’s brother to withdraw their and my grandmother’s accrued retirement pensions in Albania. They would bring the handwritten notes to Package Place, where my mom would sign them, and the owner, also a certified notary, would press a dry stamp onto the scribbled-on sheets to legalize them for use at the bank in Fier, my mom’s hometown.
The last time we did it was when they found my mom’s tumor. She knew she was about to need a lot of money because she wouldn’t be able to work. She also knew she didn’t have much money, so she tried to think of ways she could still work. At first she thought of refusing her current full-time schedule, including a 12-hour shift every other Saturday, at the suit store where she did alterations in the back. She would be stern with her boss and insist on only working 15 or 20 hours a week while going through treatment. Then we learned that the cancer had already spread from her stomach to her uterus. The treatment, if it was even possible, probably wouldn’t do anything at all. She retired, needing Medicaid because she wasn’t insured. Six weeks later she was bedridden. After another six, she died.
Now I’m back in Package Place, one year later, accepting a job. The owner turns his computer screen towards me so I can see the email address.
“Okay, there it is,” he points.
I type it into Gmail and forward him the offer letter. He prints it out and hands me the sheet.
“Great,” I say, “great.”
I stand there, staring at the paper in my hands. I skim it briefly but know I have to sign it. It’s typed in Calibri, the default font in Microsoft Word. The company’s letterhead is a left-set logo at the top of the page. The bottom of the letter is already signed with a photo of the HR woman’s signature, a blurry crop of a cell-phone pic crudely affixed above her printed name and title. Below it is the phrase “Accepted and Agreed:” followed by a line where my signature and the date go.
“Do you have a pen?” I ask the Package Place owner.
“Sure,” he says, holding out a Bic. I grab it and mindlessly start to shuffle a few steps toward a counter by the entrance. Then I stop and pivot, realizing I can just sign the letter at the counter where I stand.
When I put the pen to the paper, I feel my face get numb and warm like it did when I ate McDonald’s earlier. With a few scratches and taps of the ballpoint, the letter is signed.
“Okay, thanks so much for the help,” I tell the owner. He tells me what I owe and I pay with my credit card.
I snap a photo of the signed letter with my phone. Then I stand to the side, emailing the photo to the HR woman with a note attached. Here it is, I write, let me know if you need the hard copy, I’m excited to work with everyone and don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions.
“Have a great day,” I say to the owner.
“You too,” he nods.
I grab the ribbed metal handle and pull open the front door to step outside into the shopping plaza.
The empty parking lot feels prehistoric. It instills the same sense of mystery in me as a vast canyon valley. It’s mostly empty this late afternoon, dotted with cars.
I walk on the cement curb, passing the entrance of the Giant Foods that used to take up most of the plaza. It relocated a few months ago, leaving behind the husk of a red-brick grocery store building. The offer letter, folded in my hand, flitters in the wind.
The white-yellow light of the McDonald’s I ordered from earlier glows in an adjacent parking lot. I walk through it and cross the road to a steep street leading to the high school up the hill from my family’s house. As I ascend, I stare down at my shuffling feet and rack my brain for ideas on how to make money other than the job I’ve just accepted via offer letter. I hear a hum and look up. A Range Rover roams down the steep path. I dodge it, stumbling my way onto the sidewalk.
At the top of the street, I stop at a long staircase behind the school. The steps lead down to a clay-colored track encircling a football field, all washed in the orange light of sunset. Suddenly the next few months of my life unfold before me. Do the math, I think. Unemployed for twelve months. It’ll be one more year at this job, easy. Probably two. Likely longer.
I recall my interview with my now-boss. I got laid off, I said, then my mom got sick and died, so I took a full year off. It was difficult, I said, but the timing was good because I was able to be with my family, which was true. Now, I went on, I was ready to work somewhere where I could be prolific and go into workhorse mode.
I close my eyes and feel my head swell with phrases from my new boss’s email. “Please do reply.” “When you get a chance.” “What’s the status,” I imagine my boss, overworked herself, Slacking me late one night in the not-so-distant future, asking for an update on an article. I see myself, tense, pecking out “Khloé Kardashian Buys Niece Stormi Webster $15,000 Hermès Bag.”
My face feels flush as I stare into my eyelids. I breathe in and out of my nose, then open my eyes and turn my back on the broad view of the track and field. I start walking. The sun casts long shadows of zelkovas planted along the top of the hill above the parking lot that I have to cut through. I better get home. I have to be back at the hospital soon.
Eldis Sula is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in Leveler, Potluck and Dispatches from the Poetry Wars.