Chapter 1: Saint Agnes

The Linoleum Labryinth

The Linoleum Labyrinth.

He suddenly remembered, that is what they had dubbed Saint Agnes the moment they first stepped within her. Not that the nondescript, four-story building was maze-like in any way; save that each floor looked exactly alike from the elevator and that particular structural design element did tend to throw people, especially those visiting Saint Agnes for the first time. They had dubbed her the Linoleum labyrinth because at Saint Agnes, you were indeed surrounded by it. The material covered virtually every surface, like some hardened contagion.

Gray paint that was once white now flaked, disintegrating on her stainless steel doorways. Her speckled brown linoleum flooring had the look of concrete and felt almost as hard under foot. Her walls were painted light tan from the stucco ceiling to the waist moldings and dark tan from the waist to the floor. The idea being that light brown, they were told, was a color that would hold up under the heavy foot traffic, yet bright enough to reflect light from the frosted windows, angled exactly opposite the doorways of each room and office, so that on good days, sunlight might even reach the corridors. Mostly, the painfully neutral palette just made the place feel drab.

Three men walked the halls of Saint Agnes: one with an intensity and focus that had his two associates skipping to keep up with his long stride. Room by room, counting the faucets and outlets, windows and air ducts, Saint Agnes had undergone many an inspection just like this. Unbeknownst to the anxious middle-aged property manager or the cute young male intern scribbling notes on command, the leader of the walking tour, Randy Sturdevant, was quite familiar with every nook and shortcoming of the old building. Randy and Saint Agnes had met before.

The history of the Saint Agnes property is murky at best. Her birth year is documented as 1969. She was the first in a proposed series of structures created as an extension for one of Washington DC’s more prominent universities, although no university currently operating will confirm this. Two thirds of the way through construction, the phantom university abruptly abandoned the project in Wilmington District. Instead, the unnamed university decided to acquire and develop a pre-existing business park two miles from Foggy Bottom. It was rumored that the reason for the halt on construction was a disapproving outcry from faculty and alumni, declaring that the extension should not be built in a community that was “socially and economically stillborn.”

It is said that the local archdiocese bought the land and took over construction. The purchase of the land by the Catholic Church was, supposedly, the means by which Saint Agnes got her name. Ironically, despite its namesake matron saint, Saint Agnes would not be an institution dedicated to girls, newlyweds, gardeners or rape victims. Instead, the building would become a Catholic college preparatory for boys, grades six thru twelve.

Saint Agnes Academy would enjoy eight years of academic achievement awards and community service accolades, and two tumultuous final years, the object of accusations and scandals that typically befell institutions where Priests and boys co-exist. In 1981, Wilmington District would see an unprecedented uprising of community activism, united in the goal of revolution and restitution on behalf of thirteen wronged male youths.

The local archdiocese never admitted guilt nor reprimanded either of the accused priests. Surprisingly, they did make restitution by way of donating the land and the Saint Agnes building to Wilmington District – before quietly leaving the community altogether.

The Saint Agnes property then became Wilmington District’s favorite political football, subject to the whim of each new council member to come along. Councilman Wodeman, a twice divorced Vietnam Veteran elected for his tough stance on crime, re-opened Saint Agnes as a home for wayward boys. However, Wodeman’s program would house violent youth offenders, displaced children in the custody of social services and drug addicts all under the same roof without making any distinction or effort to separate the different populations. Wodeman would count the efficient use of the Saint Agnes facility among his successes as the district’s councilmen for three terms.

He was then challenged and defeated by Phyllis Hopper, a registered nurse and mother of four. Hopper’s twin nephews were beaten within an inch of their lives the first week of their stay at Saint Agnes. They were only supposed to have been there a few days, a transition place, until the paperwork was filed for them to come live with Phyllis and her family. The attack on the boys revealed the rampant incompetence and gross mismanagement at Saint Agnes. Phyllis Hopper won Wodeman’s seat on the City Council by a landslide with her “Save Our Kids” platform.

Phyllis Hopper spearheaded the first highly ambitious facelift and renovation of Saint Agnes’ lackluster history; a campaign for which Saint Agnes was briefly nicknamed The Hopper Multipurpose Center. Indeed, Hopper made use of every corner of the troubled establishment. The fourth floor would be rented out to private businesses, mostly physicians with smaller private practices, ophthalmologists and therapists. The third floor became the neighborhood hub for support group meetings, occupational therapy and a famously successful job center. The first and second floors became a collection of small community operated clinics, providing everything from Flu shots, vaccinations and vitamins, to a small food bank for families in need of a little extra help between paychecks. Saint Agnes became the place for post-natal checkups and parenting classes. There was even a registered nurse most days for emergencies, sometimes even a doctor once or twice a week. Saint Agnes was finally providing the services intrinsic to the needs of the community in which she resided. With the nearest hospital five miles away in every direction, and a core patronage that relied on public transportation, Saint Aggie was where everyone went when they were sick, knowing they would get at least some small measure of help, be it bandages or stitches. The mandate of pay-what-you-can was strictly enforced.

Following Phyllis Hopper’s departure from office, the fate of Saint Agnes seemed once again uncertain. But Hopper continued her work to keep the center afloat. She petitioned successful for operating grants and government funding to keep Saint Agnes open. And while the fourth floor private practices went away, and the third floor job center fell upon hard times, and the food bank dried up, the clinics limped along, treading water from one miraculous grant to the next.

The first time Randy Sturdevant had entered this building, he was an idealist. He was one of eight idealists, corralled and enthusiastically drafted by Phyllis Hopper before she moved her entire family to North Carolina. Eight recent grads from Johns Hopkins, using the master plan drawn out by Councilwoman Hopper, had adopted the facility as part of a new, experimental model in medical residency. Eight doctors, each of different specialties to support the eight mini clinics, worked full-time to keep Saint Agnes open at the primary medical center for the area. Before any one of them knew the consequences of gentrification, eight newly appointed doctors would come to the hardened, impoverished community of the Wilmington District and plant the seed of hope by restoring its disenfranchised inhabitants to good health.

But just as Saint Aggie had seen in the past, hope was a seed that never took root. They didn’t know at the time that they were entering a vicious circle of treating the symptoms of a sick community without any hope of administering a real cure. Treating poverty with penicillin and bullets with band-aids. Randy had spent five years trying to make a difference at Saint Agnes, without even making a dent.

Not making a significant difference was disheartening to all the ambitious Hopkins grads; especially so for Randy. After he moved on from Saint Agnes, he found out that he had an intense interest and love for the detective work of medicine, but no taste for the human interaction that being a physician often requires. The first signs of that disconnect surfaced at Saint Agnes.

The least popular physician in a group practice, Randy Sturdevant found himself at a crossroads. So when the communications director in Congressman Frank’s office unofficially reached out to him in Detroit, Randy was more than a little interested. The com director claimed that there was a medical center in dire straits, right in the heart of DC, that few were willing to tackle, and even fewer were likely to succeed at rejuvenating. Randy immediately knew that they were talking about Saint Agnes.

Drafty. Just like he remembered it. It had always fascinated him, the contradiction of windows that opened stubbornly and yielded so little fresh air, against the omnipresent chill in the air current, teasing at the ankles, nipping subtly at the back of the neck. Those terrible grade school pull-out windows only letting a sliver of air in, dwarfing circulation.

“New windows.” Randy declared. He had stopped dead in the middle of the corridor.

Crosby the intern quickly began stabbing his pen to his pad, writing, “Which ones?”

“All of them,” Randy answered calmly.

“Well that’s gonna cost a pretty penny,” the building manager snorted. “Good luck finding the money for that.”

“Think of it as weather-proofing the entire building,” Randy explained calmly. “By cutting our energy costs in half, it will pay for itself in less than a year.”

“I’ve been down this road before, Mr. Sturdevant. No one in Congress wants to give this place one damn dime.”

“Maybe it’s how you’re asking.”

Randy scratched gently at the center of his light brown widow’s peak before rubbing his hand over his head and back against his jaw. His mind worked as his blue eyes scanned the chop shop of sleeping machinery and metal carts and bouquets of wild bundled tubing. Careful that his favorite charcoal Louie Vuitton suit never makes contact with the crude crusted medical apparatus, he walks the rows and rows of EKGs, defibrillators and dialysis machines.

This was one of many rooms crammed with antiquated medical equipment and expired first aid supplies which overtook most of the second floor. So much waste. So much good intention gone to waste. And the same permanently emptiness tainted the air.

“Everything that has an expiration date, toss it,” he ordered Crosby to his left and then took a slight double take. He forgot he needed to look up to make eye contact with the grad student who stood well over six feet. Crosby didn’t seem to mind that he was on loan from Congressman Frank’s office. This was grunt work, not politics, but Crosby was taking his duties very seriously. Randy appreciated that.

Crosby. Such an old and elegant name for such a young and robust man. Randy loved the contradiction of it. Contradiction intrigued him.

“Where are the maintenance reports for this equipment?”

Building manager Franklin Fortes was scratching furiously at his brushy moustache. He stopped mid scratch when he realized Randy was talking to him. “What’s that?”

“Where can we find the maintenance and calibration histories of all this equipment?”

Franklin tugged nervously at his belted waistband, then at his polyester blend suit coat missing the center button, trying unsuccessfully to get either to stay over his protruding gut. “I don’t ah… We don’t keep that kind of documentation.”

Randy folded his hands together calmly. “Explain.”

Nerves wouldn’t allow Fortes to look Randy in the eye. “Well, ah, you see, we use to have a girl who did all that. It was her job to keep track of stuff. But she quit four years ago and they never replaced her so…”

After a moment of thought, Randy turned to Crosby. “We need to call the Engineering local and see if they can recommend a few guys for this. Call Georgetown and Howard as well, see who they use.”

Spanish spiced the air of the busy first floor clinic. The families that crowded the waiting area had changed. A room that was once deeply mocha now housed a broad spectrum of browns. Blacks and Latinos. A couple white families. But mostly Black families. Packs of little Black children, finding a game in every two-year-old magazine, in every crumpling lobby chair, in their own tight sibling circles.

At least there was life here.

When Randy and Saint Aggie first met, he was just a kid. They were both older and wiser now. Fate had reunited these unlikely soul-mates. Saint Agnes needed a new infusion of hope. Now standing back where it all began, Randy was secretly thrilled that he would have another shot at it. This time, Randy knew exactly what the old girl needed. He wouldn’t fail her again.

And Saint Agnes… she never thought this doctor would be the one to come back, the one that would try to save her. Then again, she always knew this one felt her soul, even if she didn’t have a pulse.

As Randy silently pondered the avenues upon which he might begin his new pilgrimage, he realized his stare had fallen on a child in the waiting room. In that crowded waiting room, packed with kids of all ages, whining, laughing, running unabated by parents, this one particular boy sat very still. His eyes hovered at half mast, his expression dazed. The Ziploc of ice resting on top of his right hand, leaked a river down his hand, puddling onto his worn jeans, unnoticed.

His mother, a dark-skinned, weave-flipping Ghetto princess, with large gold earrings that read “Leticia,” sat beside him. She was deeply involved in an over-animated, schizophrenic laughing-shouting match on her cell phone. With every outburst, her plus size hips nudged her son further out of his seat, closer and closer to the edge. The boy didn’t respond to the jostling; he simply sat there, seemingly unaware that in a few more nudges he would be on the floor.

The noise and bustle of the clinic waiting room was normal. Yet this one child seemed out of place. Randy needed to find out why.

“Let me call you back,” Leticia said as Randy knelt before her son.

“What’s your name, son?” Randy said quietly.

Leticia nudged her dazed son. “Tell ‘em your name! His name’s Earl.”

“How did you hurt your hand Earl?” Randy asked quietly, lifting the ice from the boy’s hand.

“Radiator,” Earl muttered.

“I keep telling y’all not to play in that room while I’m not there.” Leticia chided.

“Earl, why don’t you come with me and we’ll take a look at that,” Randy said quietly.

Gently, he pulled little Earl to his feet and lifted him into his arms. “Hold on to me, OK?”

After a moment, Earl nodded.

“What are you doing? There ain’t nothing wrong with his legs,” Leticia snapped.

Randy carried Earl behind the check in desk. He looked down at the frazzled girl behind the desk. “We need an open examination room.”

“I’m sorry, but this boy is not next. There are-”

“What’s you’re name?”

“Britney.”

“Britney, my name is Dr. Sturdevant. I need a room for this child now.”

Randy’s calm insistence penetrates Britney’s distraction. “Curtain eight is open, but it’s not prepped with supplies.”

“Please send a nurse to assist me in curtain eight as soon as possible,” Randy answered. “And find something for his mother to sign.”

“She’s finished her paperwork.”

“Make sure.” Randy answered firmly.

Suddenly understanding, Brittney nods obediently.

Randy then carries Earl passed curtain after curtain, occupied by bored, waiting sick families, and turned into the first open bed area. He gently sets the boy down on the tattered, poorly upholstered examining table. Crosby and Franklin watch curiously as Randy begins to examine the burn on Earl’s hand.

“What’s going on?”

“This is a pretty bad burn. He should be in a lot more pain than he is.”

“I don’t get it,” Fortes huffed frustrated.

A short, bubbly brunette enters the curtain area. “Britney said you needed help. I’m Kristen.”

Randy grabs a penlight from Kristen’s scrubs pocket and carefully shines it into Earl’s eyes.

The child does not reacts.

“Kristen, I need you to bring me a burn kit so I can dress this wound.” Randy turns to the men watching anxiously. “This child is high. That’s why he’s not wailing in pain. Kristen, I also want a urine sample. I want some idea of what he ingested and how. And we need to contact the social worker on call.”

“We don’t have social workers here,” Kristen answered quietly.

Randy hesitated. “I still need that burn kit.”

Kristen dashes out of the curtain area.

Franklin shakes his head. “We get kids his age coming in here loaded all the time.”

Randy stares at Franklin in disgust. “And no one thought to get a social worker on staff. Even make a call?”

“The last doc to involve a social worker got the pants sued off ’em.” Franklin waits for a response. Randy just stares. “Look, I’m just responsible for the building. Not the people in it!”

Randy places a hand on Earl’s shoulder. The child immediately sighs and quietly lays down on the paper lined examining table. A single tear slides unnoticed down his cheek.

Had he forgotten? Has it gotten worse?

He won’t fail her again.

Randy looks at Crosby. “We need a social services contact on site.” As Crosby begins to write, he adds, “Crosby, put it at the top.”

2012 © Better Half LLC

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