Out of Warranty

Haywood Smith

St. Martin's Press


A fresh stab of loneliness sharded through me as I looked into my ten-times magnifying makeup mirror-of-the-awful-truth, trying to erase the ravages of grief with concealer for yet another day.
Old. I looked old and haggard.
I closed my eyes. God, thank you for this day and my life, just as it is, I prayed as a sacrifice of obedience, wondering how long it would be till I could mean it. Help me, please. I can’t do this without you. That, I meant with all my heart. I know your love should fill the hole Tom left in my heart, but it doesn’t. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. As always, I sensed God’s consoling arms about me, but it wasn’t enough.
Focus on today, I told myself as I did every morning, focus on gratitude, the blessings you have, not what you’ve lost, and you’ll get through this. Think of Haley and Tommy, and Paige and precious Ethan and little Catherine. And Mama.
And the house: it was paid for, even though the taxes were ridiculous. And I had what was left of Tom’s life insurance, and my widow’s health benefits, even though they cost a fortune and didn’t cover squat. Still, that was a lot more than some people had these days. And I had new knees and new hips and plates and screws that worked just fine. I needed to focus on that.
Instead, I focused on that honkin’ huge zit beside my nose in the mirror.
There’s just something so wrong about having zits and arthritis at the same time. I broke out the workout makeup, waterproof and thick enough to cover a doorknob, converting the zit to a mere lump that I hoped would be taken for a mole.
Thirty minutes later—dressed, made up, and coiffed—I braved the muggy July heat and left Juliette to do her business in the backyard while I went to the mailbox before heading to my appointment with the new ENT/allergist. In the mail I found a Chico’s flyer, catalogues from Vermont Country Store and Harriet Carter, my bank statement, a notice from the Fulton County tax assessor’s office, and an explanation of benefits from Green Shield Heath Insurance (or the antichrist, as I thought of them).
Always one to face the music without delay, I opened the bank statement first. Though I knew things had been a lot more expensive lately than I’d planned, I wasn’t prepared for the closing balance.
Shoot a monkey!
Half a million dollars of life insurance had seemed like a lot till I’d paid off all my medical bills, plus the refi and equity line we’d done in 2005, and the kids’ student loans. I’d also bought a dependable hybrid minivan to last me the rest of my life, which I now suspected would be cruelly long. (Mama was eighty-nine and strong as an ox, in much better shape physically and mentally than I was. It would be just my luck to inherit her longevity along with Daddy’s bad bones.)
I looked at the closing balance again and shook my head in mute denial. I was down to only two hundred thousand and facing more medical bills, plus property taxes out the wazoo, thanks to my location in what was now considered Buckhead.
Speaking of taxes, I switched to the letter from the assessor’s office, hoping they’d reduced the value of my house to reflect the depressed market. Then I opened it and discovered that they’d reassessed the house, all right: they’d upped it by fifty thousand!
Based on what? Nothing but foreclosures and short sales had sold in our neighborhood for almost a year!
Shoot, shoot, shoot! My blood pressure shot up, making my pulse pound like an anvil in the July heat.
I would have contested the increase, but I didn’t have the moxie, and Tom had always fought our battles for us.
Tucking the bank statement and reassessment under my arm, I wheezed as I walked back up the gentle slope of our short driveway. One more letter left to open.
I ripped the end off the explanation of benefits. For thirteen hundred dollars a month, plus a two-thousand annual deductible and out-of-pocket, my Green Shield PPO should at least cover sixty percent of the four thousand dollars plus I’d spent on tests and IV treatments at the holistic internist’s. Never mind that all I’d gotten for my money was some validation and a referral to the ENT/allergist I was seeing that day.
I unfolded the EOB, scanning from the doctor’s out-of-network fees to the zero fee adjustment, to the zero payout. Patient responsibility: $4,267.53.
What was with that? I’d already met my out-of-pocket for the year!
I looked at the code numbers beside the lab fees and treatment charges, then the key printed at the bottom. Disallowed: not standard medical practice. Disallowed: not standard medical practice. Disallowed. Disallowed. Disallowed. Followed by the fatal: nonnegotiable.
The antichrist had shafted me completely, not even applying any of it to my deductibles or payout ceiling!
I got so mad, I almost hyperventilated.
Criminal. The insurance company was criminal. And they knew I couldn’t go elsewhere for coverage. Nobody would have me. I’d spent well over fifteen thousand just on coverage in the year since Tom had died, and that didn’t even include dental or optometrist. And this was what all that money had bought me?
Afraid I might stroke out, I shepherded Juliette back into the blessed cool inside the house. I dumped the mail, then put her away in my bedroom.
Blasted crummy coverage, but what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t go uninsured, and it was 2012, so I didn’t dare opt for Obama’s high-risk pool because of all the court challenges.
“I’ll be back later,” I called to Juliette through the door. Not that she cared. She slept all day on her pink bed stuffed with cedar chips.
Some company.
On the way out, I grabbed my purse and keys from their hiding place in the bread drawer. I activated the security system alarm, then headed for Dr. Patel’s.
At least he was in network. The antichrist would have to pay at least seventy percent.
That’s what I thought, anyway, before I heard the dreaded “usual and customary treatment” loophole.
Fifteen minutes later, I drove up to yet another expensive parking lot entrance at yet another medical complex in Buckhead, so weak and depressed I could hardly sit up.
Rolling down the window to take my stub, I was smacked with a flood of heat and humidity that wilted me even further. Though I snatched the parking stub the nanosecond it appeared, the wretched machine scolded me with a loud, grating buzz anyway. Blasted machines. They’d leeched the humanity out of everything.
All the parking spaces within a thousand feet of the building were filled, and the lot sizzled in the sun.
I coughed heavily, rattling loose some of the “psychosomatic” gunk (according to the doctors at Emory, who had run a jillion tests, then referred me to a psychologist) in my lungs.
For some bizarre reason, the handicapped spaces were at the far side of the lot. Gasping, I pulled into one (with four joint replacements, you get a handicapped pass, and you need it), sicker than I’d ever been, and lonely to the bone.
Cursed Green Shield.
I got out of my car into the hazy heat, then trudged to the atrium lobby, arriving breathless and light-headed. The elevators—of course—were on the far side of the atrium. Whoever designed this place must never have been sick and alone.
When the elevator doors finally opened, I stepped inside and pressed three as a young mother with a stroller whipped in beside me.
I looked at the child in the stroller. “What a cutie.” I studied her big, black eyes and was rewarded with a deeply dimpled smile. “What floor?” I asked her mother.
“Five, please,” her mother said with a grateful nod.
“How old is she?” I guessed nine months.
“Nine months,” the mother said proudly, bending to stroke her daughter’s fuzzy halo.
Bingo. “I have a three-year-old grandson and a ten-month-old granddaughter.”
“That’s nice,” the mother said, clearly not interested.
Embarrassed by her dismissal, I realized I was officially one of those old ladies who bothered perfect strangers in the elevator. Shoot.
At the third floor, I waved to the baby as I got off, then headed for the main corridor. But a familiar bladder sensation caused me to back up and detour to the ladies’ room. After four bladder tacks, the last of which was failing, I agreed with George Burns: “Never pass up a chance to pee.” The rest of the quote was X-rated, but I agreed with most of it, too, except the sex part.
The last thing in the world on my mind was sex.
After finishing and washing my hands, I braved a series of hallways that seemed to be numbered at random, in search of my doctor’s office.
The Web site had provided directions to the address, but it should have given me a map of the maze inside. Hopelessly confused, I halted briefly, lost.
Maybe it was a sign that I shouldn’t go to this new guy. Save my money, go back to bed and not get up.
Then I started coughing again. Breathless by the time the spell ended, I steadied myself against the wall, seeing stars.
Maybe I should go to the doctor, after all, even though he might end up bleeding me for tests and start-up fees, pun intended. If somebody didn’t help me, I was going to croak, no two ways about it. For all I’d said I wanted to die since the funeral, when it came down to it, I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t leave my son and daughter orphaned, and I loved my grandchildren to distraction. And what good would the money I had left do me if I croaked from my “psychosomatic” condition?
I decided to take the chance on Dr. Patel. So I’d end up in the poorhouse a few days sooner. At least I would have tried.
I turned down yet another hallway and discovered I’d been going in a circle.
Then I spotted a sign pointing toward a snack bar and set out to get directions, mustering up the last of my energy to put on a happy face for the world one more time.

Copyright © 2013 by Haywood Smith