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.