“Call me any time,” the boss liked to say. “I’ll be happy to assist you in any way I can.”
Of course, he wouldn’t be available. He only wanted it to seem that way. He ran a huge hospital, after all, and had a packed schedule. The person who really was available was his assistant, Ruth. She sat in the outer office of the Most High, and on her desk resided a big, black, multi-button telephone. It was her voice that callers heard first and last. If she could solve their problems, and she usually could, they were content to leave it at that.
The people who called Ruth, whether patients or relatives of patients, were by definition not happy. Fuses were short. The cost of parking made them mad. The food in the cafeteria made them mad. Too-busy nurses made them mad. Snotty cashiers made them mad. They complained. The savvy ones took their complaints right to the top. It was up to Ruth to take everything seriously, like a homicide detective trained never to smile on the job lest her happy face show up beside a dead body on the six o’clock news.
Still, she found entertaining moments.
“Hello? Hello? I’m callin’ about my wife. She’s up’ere with y’all, and she’s got one ‘a them hyena hurtles.”
Ruth bit her lip hard, knowing instantly that the caller meant hiatal hernia. She managed to speak with the gravitas she knew the poor man needed. It couldn’t be easy, having a wife with a hyena hurtle.
Then there was Mr. Important Guy, who phoned with a complaint. “My wife,” he pronounced, “is in a semi-private room with a woman who groans day and night. It’s driving her crazy.”
“Of course, sir. Let me just check and see what we can do.”
The next day, with Mrs. Important Guy happily ensconced in a private room, a Rolls Royce pulled up at the front entrance. The chauffeur entered Ruth’s office, carrying a giant arrangement of orchids and a note of thanks. That was a good day.
Sad, unsolvable problems arose, too, like the one from a mother in another state: “My son was badly injured in a motorcycle accident. He says he wants to die, and he won’t answer my calls. I’m just beside myself, but I can’t get off work to come there. Would you please check on him and call me back?”
Ruth took the elevator up five floors and into the room of an angry young man whose legs were bandaged together to aid the healing of skin grafts.
“This is hell,” he snarled. “I’d rather be dead than lie here trussed up like a damn turkey.”
“I know it must be tough,” Ruth said, “but your mom is worried about you. Could you talk to her on the phone?”
He turned his face to the wall. Conversation over.
Later, Ruth received a call from the head nurse, who said she’d thank her kindly not to come spying for management on her floor. So everyone was upset, the patient, the mama and the staff. Ruth wasn’t feeling too perky herself.
On her last day, she packed up her personal belongings, cut the cake at the party held in her honor, and said good-bye to her co-workers.
She’d intended to duck out early, but the phone pulled her back every time. When she finally finished solving the last caller’s problem, everyone else had gone home, making rueful, apologetic faces as they departed. She was alone in the office. She smiled at the big, black phone perched on the corner of her desk. No little green lights blinked. No warbling ring disturbed the quiet.
“Good-bye to you, too,” Ruth said. She reached into her purse and pulled out the claw hammer.