It took some getting used to in dealing with Mae. My main function soon became acting as her bookkeeper. Each month, I would write checks for her. She was illiterate, and signing her name was about all she could do.
Mae was a fairly ordinary looking lady past 50 by several years. But what was most striking about her was her mischievous personality — in short, she was a flirt.
I found myself smiling a lot when I was around Mae.
One day as I sat writing checks for her, she said, “My ex-husband moved in downstairs.” By then, she was living in a subsidized highrise operated by a labor union. I thought it was a pretty nice place. I helped her get in, did the necessary paperwork, took her for an interview, and much more. That was a part of my case management job, and it was the part I liked best.
And so it happened that I found myself sitting in Mae’s small apartment, and across from me by the window in front of the TV sat Lil. Lil was a heavy-set, blonde-haired woman, who never had much to say when I was around. She lived on another floor but came around a lot to visit with Mae because Mae had cable TV, which included the birthing channel. She would sit there for hours watching her programs. But that wasn’t all there was to it. Mae had a small, old poodle named Kit. Kit would lick Lil’s stout legs. I am guessing she had sugar, and it showed up in her lower extremities, making them sweet-tasting.
So hère I sat writing checks for Mae, the dog licking Lil’s legs, and Mae telling me about her ex downstairs. I wished I had a photo of that particular tableau.
“So, you are going to hook up again with your ex?” I asked Mae, smiling in a teasing fashion. I admit I myself can also be mischievous.
“He don’t even know I am here,” she replied. “But I see him in the lobby. He don’t look much changed.”
“You married to him a long time ago, were you?” I asked her. “There been others, too, have there?”
“A bunch,” she replied, acting a bit coy and smiling. This response got my full attention. I put down my pen.
“So how many more are we talking about, Mae?”
“Six in all,” she answered, giggling.
“All of them’s dead ‘cept the fellow downstairs.” I wanted to ask how he got out alive, but of course, I didn’t. But I was thinking, I’ve got me a black widow here. Mae noticed the look on my face.
“I didn’t kill a’ one of them. Honest, I didn’t, Ray.” She and I both laughed.
“You sure?” I managed.
“Yeah, I’m sure. Several of them deserved to get kilt.”
“So, you going to connect up with the fellow downstairs? What number was he?”
“I don’t remember. Somewhere in the middle.”
“What’s his name?”
“Henry, or maybe it is Harold, I forget.”
She was just having fun with me now. She knew his name.
“Shucks, Ray, I’m not gonna marry up with him again. He don’t want me now.
“You sure you ain’t planning a late-night meeting?” She laughed some more.
By now I know of course I am way beyond social work’s ethical boundaries, but when you get older on this job, like me, and day after day you see so much of what is grim in life, and then somebody like Mae comes along who can make you smile, even laugh, well you run with it. At least I do. I am not sure where the harm is. No doubt others may feel differently.
Mae was loaded up with psychiatric medicines. Yet in all the time I knew her, she never presented as psychotic. Yet to be involved with my agency meant you had to be diagnosed as totally and severely and permanently mentally ill. It was easy to forget this with someone like Mae.
And through all of this, the little dog was furiously licking Lil’s fat legs, but not for too much longer, as it turned out. Several days later, I got a call from a visiting nurse who sometimes attended Mae. She told me how the dog had died. Of a sugar overdose? I asked. The caller seemed confused by my question, so I didn’t continue. She did say she thought Mae must be depressed, and I ought to make a visit soon, which I did that same afternoon.
Lil was there engrossed in her favorite birthing channel, with no dog, of course. I knew immediately that Mae wanted to talk to me about something, maybe about the loss of her dog, but not in front of Lil. She was too polite to ask her to leave.
“Let’s go out in the hallway,” I suggested. So she followed me out where there is a little sitting area.
“What’s up?” I asked. “I am terribly sorry about your little dog,” I added.
“I had him almost 15 years,” she said sadly. Then she changed the subject entirely.
“The bank lady, she called me yesterday. My account is overdrawn.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible — you got easily $500, maybe more.”
“She says I am $200 short. She was nice, though.”
“I just can’t see how that can be,” I persisted.
Mae was easy to write checks for because she often carried a sizable balance from month to month. I may not be the best accountant there is, but with Mae, it was hard to screw up.
“We got to go to that branch office and get this straight,” I insisted.”
So we went to see the bank employee. It was not a far drive, and I knew the lady slightly.
“I thought you’d be along, Mrs. Finneran, and so I got together the checks that were written.” She nodded in my direction but did not speak to me directly.
I immediately saw the problem. Several checks were written to Johnnie, Mae’s son, about six hundred dollars worth, and signed by Mae, except that I knew she didn’t sign them. Johnnie somehow got blank checks, and maybe a canceled check or two Mae had signed, and he copied her name.
He did a good job. The signature looked like hers.
Mae didn’t quite get what had happened, so I explained.
“Johnnie got a hold of several of your checks and made them out to himself, signed your name.”
She was surprised and angry and said she didn’t know how he came by her checks.
The checks were cashed in this very same bank branch — three checks, too — and the bank had some responsibility, which they knew and admitted as much.
“You will need to sign some papers, a complaint that will go to the police.” Mae was ready to sign. I asked Mae if we could step away from the desk to confer, and when we did, I said, “Understand now if we go on with this, Johnnie will be arrested pronto and go back to prison.”
“He deserves it, don’t he?”
“He does, Mae, but he’s almost all you got for family.” I meant family that came around to see her, even if to steal from her. She knew what I was saying.
“What would you do, Ray?”
“I would walk away, let it go. You will get along all right. You just don’t want to be the person who puts Johnnie back in jail.” Let someone else do this, I’m thinking.
And that’s what we did, what Mae did.
We got busy the next day transporting her dog to the Jefferson Forest, which I think is actually named for Senator Mitch McConnell. I found a spade, and Mae and me, and Lil drove out there in my car and buried Kit the dog. I was then doing the kind of social work I was best at: the hands-on stuff.
Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.
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