This is the second part of a two part series. To read Part 1, click here.
The lecture went well. I was driving home long after dark and, fortunately, the L.A. freeways were clear. As I coursed my way back through the city, my mind drifted off to Harriett.
I never thought of myself as ever having a personal hooker. That said, I don’t suppose that Harriett would actually fall into that category. I have been approached by hookers many times over the years, and I suspect that this may continue, although I also suspect, perhaps not at the same rate as when I was younger. Harriett’s very personal send off earlier in the evening was still on my mind.
Regardless, of all the chapters in my veterinary career, Harriett’s contribution to my life’s novel was certainly one of the most memorable.
“I don’t think I can ever remember seeing you looking so good, Dr. Doug,” she had cooed, just inches from my face. Her smoker’s breath was like insect repellent.
“Now, Harriett,” I gently took her fingers and removed them from my lapel. “I’ve gotta be leaving, not …" I felt my cheeks flush. I was not expecting that. Smiling as I stepped back, I let her hands slip away.
Mouth open, cheek-splitting smile, cartoon eyes. “Oooooh, Dr. Doug. I think I embarrassed you!" People driving by didn't even notice the drama between the businessman and the hooker on the street corner. It was wallpaper in a city like this.
“Happy to make you smile, Harriett.” For some reason I felt I had to step over and pat her on the shoulder. “I’ve really got to get on the road.”
So that was how it went. I suspected that was not her first rejection by a man.
My neighbor across the street from my hospital owned a small Italian restaurant. He hated the fact that a hooker was hanging out on my corner and constantly complained as he dished out my pasta. Once Harriet and one of her girlfriends tried to work his side of the street and he chased them off with a gun. Obviously, not how I would have handled it.
A couple of months after my lecture, one of my receptionists came to me one day wearing a big grin.
“You’ll never guess who your next client is,” she said.
It was more of a statement than a question. She handed me a thin chart, obviously a new client, and motioned with her head toward one of the rooms.
Intrigued, I grabbed the chart and headed to the exam room. All my exam rooms had glass pass-through windows. I stepped to the side of the room and peered in to see who was waiting. There was Harriett, in her usual garb, petting a scruffy gray tabby kitten.
With her left hand she was teasing the kitten with a short piece of pink yarn, stroking the little cat’s back with the other. She looked at the kitten the way parents lovingly watch their child.
“I never pictured you to be a cat person,” I said as I entered the room, all smiles and amazement.
“I found him!” she exclaimed. She picked him up and gave him big kiss on the nose.
I examined the little kitten. It was covered with fleas, mucous membranes pale as a ghost. In addition, it was skinny and had a very dull, brittle coat. I discussed all the new kitten stuff that a vet does with any new client with a new kitten. It was obvious that she was really in love with her new friend.
I recommended all the appropriate new kitten services such as FeLv testing, fecal examination, vaccines, etc. Harriett soaked it all in. I told her to give me a minute and I’d get her an estimate.
“Do whatever you need to do, Dr. Doug. Money is NO object!” The word “no” came out in song.
I believed her.
The kitten got a thorough tune up and Harriett was sent home with necessary medications. She was thrilled with our service and was excited to come back with John for his second set of kitten vaccinations (she explained to me that every hooker has a John). Before she left she gave me a big hug, but I pulled away before she snuck in a kiss.
Over the next couple of weeks, each evening as I walked to my car, I asked Harriett how the kitten was doing–I just couldn’t get myself to call it by its given name. Harriett would beam like a proud parent, telling me about its escapades and how big and fast it was growing.
Somewhere between the third and fourth week that she owned John she had to bring him in to our hospital late one night on an emergency. I was out of town lecturing at the time.
As soon as I returned from my trip, the staff informed me that Harriett had brought her kitten in on ER. John arrived moribund, eyes crusted shut and severely dehydrated. The ER doc started the kitten on fluids, antibiotics and supportive medications, eventually giving it a transfusion. Although the staff made a heroic effort the little kitten died the following day.
I asked how Harriett handled it and all my staff could say was that she was very sad. She paid her bill and left without saying much.
I felt crushed. It never fails that I seem to be out of town when someone special needs my help. I realize that I cannot be here all the time for everybody, but, somehow, I felt that I had personally let Harriett, and her precious John, down.
I wanted so badly to talk to her, let her know how sad I was. But, per the staff, since the night of the kitten’s passing she had not been seen on her corner. My corner. I went out nightly looking for Harriett on the surrounding streets. I drove around areas known to be frequented by hookers. I couldn’t find her. I put the word out to a couple of her friends, but they were reticent to talk to me and I suspect that my message never got to her. I had to assume that she was too upset with us for not being able to save her beautiful kitten.
Harriett was not just another hooker. She was a client. Someone, oddly, I had grown to care about. I needed closure. I needed to talk to her.
About six weeks later, just as I was scrubbing in for morning surgery, my receptionist came to get me.
“Dr. Mader.” Her look was unsettled. “Harriett is here. She seems really upset. I put her in room three.”
I paged one of my associates and asked her to take my case. I went straight to room three.
When I walked in it was a different Harriett that I saw. She wasn’t wearing her regular costume. She was in tattered jeans, a gray, long-sleeved sweatshirt, hood over her head, and large, dark sunglasses.
“Harriett.” She was looking down at the floor when I entered, visibly shaking.
“Oh, Dr. Doug!” She spun in my direction and threw her arms around me, crying.
I wasn’t sure what to do, never having consoled a hooker before. Somehow, however, I don’t think she was a hooker right at that moment. I held her and let her cry. She wept hard, her body jerking with each wail.
Finally, she calmed and stepped back, again looking down at the floor. Tears ran from under the oversized shades.
I studied her for a moment. This was a very sad woman. Her reaction and body language were not unexpected from a person who had lost a beloved pet. But there was something else going on. I was not sure.
I watched her for a moment more, then, slowly, reached over and touched her sunglasses. She started at first, pushing my hand away. I reached again, even more gently, and removed her glasses.
Her face was brutalized. Both eyes were blackened, a large crescent shaped cut rimmed her cheek.
“My God, Harriett! What happened?” I was shocked at was I was seeing. My imagination went wild.
“I’ve had a bad time, Dr. Doug.” She put her glasses back on, gingerly, as if her face were still painful to the touch. Even though I could not see her eyes, I had a feeling that she could not look at me.
“I am so sorry to hear about John, Harriett.” I wanted to hold her hand but she had backed away. “I am sorry I was not there for you when you needed me.”
“Dr. Doug,” I could see her mouth tighten, “I am not upset with you–I know you are ’portant and go teach everywhere.” She looked up and forced a partial smile. “Your people were solid. They did everything they could.” The tears flowed again. I handed her a box of tissues from the pass-through window.
“Where have you been? I’ve been wanting to talk to you.” She looked up at me as in disbelief. “I even went driving around looking for you, to see if you had gone to another corner. I was afraid that you were mad at me.”
She smiled, this time more naturally. “You went looking for me?” She pointed to herself. “Somehow, I just don’t see you driving around looking for a ho.”
“What happened, Harriett? Where have you been?” I kept the mood serious. I didn’t want her to morph into her professional persona. The question chilled her.
“After John died, I didn’t know what to do.” She grabbed another tissue and blew hard into her hands. “I just started walking. Walking, nowhere to go. Next thing I know I must’ve got into some bitch’s territory and she was beatin’ on my ass. I think she thought I was trying to cut in or somethin’.”
I started to speak, but she cut me off.
“Dr. Doug, I have to leave. I can’t stay around here no mo’.” She looked around for a trash can for her tissue, then put it in her pocket. “I just wanted to tell you…I just wanted to thank you.” She finally looked at me. “You have always treated me right. You’ve shown respect. You’re real class.”
She hugged me, held it for a few moments, then without saying anything further, turned and walked out.