“I’m not a good person, Lena.”
Sunday afternoon, 13 September 2015
GM: Em calls upon his doctor and asks when he can get out. Dr. Brown tells him that while he’s out of ICU, he’s still got “a little while yet” before he’s ready to be released.
When pressed, Dr. Brown admits that it’s Em’s legal right to check out of the hospital at any time—he’s a (sufficiently) mentally competent adult and they can’t hold him against his will without a court order. Dr. Brown repeats that he does not advise Em to leave the hospital at this time. The still-injured cripple does not have a clean bill of health. If Em wants to leave, there’s going to be a liability waiver for him to sign, absolving Tulane Medical Center of responsibility for any injury that results from Em ignoring his doctor’s orders.
Furthermore, if he’s well enough to leave the hospital, he’ll also be considered well enough to meet his probation officer and spend weekends in Orleans Parish Prison. And to start paying his many, many bills.
Emmett: He can deal with the problems he already has or wait on his back while more accumulate. This might be the worst week of his life, but he’s going to face it. It might be the bravest thing he’s ever done, and that might be pathetic; but then, so is he. He asks for somebody to call his sister. He’s getting out of here.
GM: Lena is, to put it mildly, surprised by Emmett’s sudden turn-around. As a doctor herself, she is not predisposed to go against the advice of a colleague responsible for her brother’s care. Still, money is a huge issue without insurance, and Em pitches that another week (or more) of mounting bills will ruin his life worse than a pediatrician taking over his post-ICU care. Lena reluctantly acquiesces after Em signs the liability waiver, but adds that he’s going right back if his symptoms take a turn for the worse. Not only does Em’s silver tongue win him release from Tulane, but Lena volunteers to take the rest of the day off (as a doctor she still works Sundays) and take him home right away, rather than waiting until evening.
Now that he’s feeling well enough to leave, however, Lena also declares that he’s well enough to talk about bills. “I made a trip to Tulane’s financial services department, Em. They haven’t finished tabulating your bill, but it looks like you’re going to owe them at least $100,000. Possibly a lot more.”
Emmett: “That’s a lot, yeah,” Em says.
He’s oddly calm. He has long given up on clawing his way out of the medical debt. It’s the one that might hurt his sister he’s terrified of.
GM: “The bill hasn’t arrived yet, so that buys you some wiggle room. Hospitals are pretty slow about sending them. It could take months before yours actually arrives in the mail, but we shouldn’t put this off.” She pauses to gather her thoughts. “Now, you have a lot more options than you may realize, including charity programs and government assistance like SSI. You can also simply negotiate the hospital for a lower bill—most people don’t know you can do that. Hospitals only charge so much because of the games they play with insurance companies; bills are more like ‘oh I hope to get this’ Christmas wish-lists than anything else. Hospitals don’t actually expect to collect the sums of money they initially ask for.”
Lena pauses again. “But for someone who isn’t on insurance, you’re on hook for the entire amount. Even with everything we can do to bring this bill down… god only knows when, or if, you’ll be able to pay it off.”
Emmett: “A crippling debt, one might say.”
GM: His sister isn’t laughing.
Emmett: The joke has been repeated too many times to be funny. He’s just pushing air.
He sighs. “Lena. My life is over. The debt is just the very, very big cherry on the sundae that is my life being over.”
But yours isn’t going to be ruined, too.
GM: “Actually, Em, if we can get you on an insurance plan as well as public assistance, you might not have to pay any money for your stay. Now, you can’t get on my and Dan’s insurance, because you aren’t a financial dependent of ours. But under the Affordable Care Act, you are still eligible to be on our parents’ until you turn 26. In fact, if the state finds you disabled and starts paying you SSI, I think there’s a law that you can stay on their insurance indefinitely.”
Emmett: “That sounds like it involves talking to Mom and Dad.”
GM: “Yes, it would. We’ve talked. They still feel…” Lena trails off, seeming to think better.
“I’ll let them talk to you about how they feel. Regardless, I think they might still be willing to put you back on their plan. But I’m not the one who’s going to convince them.”
Emmett: He says nothing.
GM: “Emmett, you could go to prison for this,” Lena states seriously. “They can sue you for failing to pay outstanding bills. You can then be held in contempt of court for failing to make the court-ordered payments. I’ve seen it happen.”
Emmett: “Yeah. It’s bad.”
GM: “And if you can’t pay the bills back, forget about prosthetics. Those also cost thousands of dollars.”
Emmett: He hangs his head. “You already won, Lena.”
GM: His sister closes her eyes for a moment. “Thank you, Em.”
Emmett: “Nah. Don’t thank me for saving my own ass, Len.” His voice is very, very quiet. "I meant it when I said I was going to make it up to you. Somehow. "
GM: “That’s one part of why I thanked you.” Lena manages a tired smile. “There are a few other things before we leave. But hopefully less…” She trails off again. “Well, first. When I tried to visit you earlier, there were police outside your door who said you were under arrest.”
Emmett: “Past tense, now.”
GM: “Clearly. I do need to know why and what you were charged with, if anything.”
Emmett: He sighs. “Assaulting a police officer was the biggie.” Preemptively, he says, “Relax.”
GM: Lena doesn’t look very relaxed. “Emmett, if you’re going to be staying in the same house as my kids, I need to know the full story.”
Emmett: He closes his eyes. “This’ll take a while.”
Sunday afternoon, 13 September 2015
GM: Lena patiently (but far from passively) listens to Em’s explanation of the many events that led to his current point. He leaves out everything to do with Talal al-Saud, as well as the loan from the Dixie Mafia that may have bought his legal defense at the price of his niece’s and nephew’s lives.
Lena is still horrified by the story he tells her. She’s read about corruption in NOPD, of course, but she can’t believe a police officer would actually do something like that to someone—or hand them over, or—well, it’s not apparent what happened to Em, though Cash Money was clearly involved, and he’s the easiest figure Lena can find to blame. She wonders if they should try to press charges—but upon hearing of Em’s arrest and the consequences which resulted from that, she reluctantly concurs they should stay the hell away from Ricky Mouton.
Lena seems to assume that Em went with a public defender for his lawyer. He does not attempt to dissuade her. The court fines are a drop in the bucket next to the medical bills, but the state of Louisiana is going to be far more aggressive (or at least timelier) in collecting those.
Em spending his weekends in jail seriously worries her in his present condition. Orleans Parish Prison is one of the worst jails in the country, she’s read. There are horrible stories about inmate fatalities and rampant corruption and abuses among the guards. It’s no place for anyone to be, much less someone in as sorry a state as Em.
Then there’s his probation. One of the terms, if he wants to stay out of prison, is to be gainfully employed. In other words, Em must hold his first real job in all his life.
Emmett: He sighs. “I’ve always wanted to be a mobile signpost. Or maybe a tourist attraction. What qualifies as gainfully employed, in probation terms? Can you look it up?”
GM: “Basically anything there’s a W2 form for. I mean, it’s not as if most parolees are working as rocket scientists. An entry level dishwashing or fast food job would satisfy.”
Emmett: “What about being a student?”
GM: Lena considers the question. “I don’t think so, as it’s not a paying job. But that’s something I should ask my lawyer. Maybe it would count if you did a work-study program.”
Emmett: “I’ve actually… been thinking about going back to school. Before all this.” He serves the lie with a bitter laugh. “Hindsight 20/20, right?”
GM: “That still wouldn’t be a bad idea, Em,” his sister encourages. “Desk jobs that require a degree are a lot more likely to accommodate physical disabilities.”
Emmett: “Yeah… but come on. The cripple with a rap sheet? I don’t know much about student loans, but I wouldn’t qualify, right?” He does his best to make it sound like a foregone answer, but everything might ride on a “yes.”
GM: “Student loan eligibility is mainly based off personal and parental income, though past a certain age, I don’t remember what, how much your parents make doesn’t factor in. So in some ways it can be easier to qualify when you’re older. Having a physical disability might also help, I’m not fully sure there either. We can try applying for grants too—those are available to older students, and you don’t even have to pay them back.”
Emmett: “…oh.” He starts to nod. “I guess… that might be a decent bridge to build with Mom and Dad, right?”
And also to my way out of shit creek.
GM: “Going back to school? Oh, definitely, Em.” Lena pauses. “Also, when I said to pass on they said hi… that was me, well, fibbing. They… haven’t asked me to pass anything on for over four years.”
Emmett: “Oh. That’s… good? I feel less bad now.”
“No. I don’t.”
It’s true. He feels exactly as guilty about it as he did before this nightmare started.
Sunday afternoon, 13 September 2015
GM: Touro is a well-to-do neighborhood that sits just east of the Garden District. Blocks of glorious 19th-century homes stand as symbols of the industriousness which made New Orleans one of the wealthiest cities in the nation during the Antebellum. While Touro does not play home to the same old money that its elder, western neighbor does, most Touro residents are white (a significant demographic break from the majority of the Crescent City) and a third own their homes outright. Children play on a basketball court right next to a police station whose officers vigilantly keep “undesirables” out of the upper-middle class neighborhood.
The Merinelli house is a two-story affair built in the Craftsman style, surrounded by a neatly-trimmed hedge and low iron fence. The family’s breadwinners aren’t Malveauxes, but they both still make six-figure incomes, and it shows.
Lena parks her SUV in the house’s unattached garage, then lowers Em onto his wheelchair with the help of a Hispanic woman in a housekeeper’s beige uniform, who she introduces as Paula. The newly-crippled young man is wheeled into the room that Lena and Dan use as their shared office space while the former boots up a desktop computer and asks for help making an Excel spreadsheet list of all the outstanding debts he owes, the various court-mandated obligations he’s expected to keep, and when they’re due by.
Emmett: Admitting he had trouble keeping track of everything at the time, he recalls the hospital’s outstanding (and unknown) bill and his court-mandated fines.
GM: “Okay, that’s good. On top of that, there’s also your probation officer’s monthly fine. Then medical bills, and your public defender…”
Lena draws up an excel spreadsheet and puts down five rows for the five separate fees, with “monthly payment”, “total owed”, and “total paid” under each one. His court fees, Em recalls, come out to $5,900, including the $200 restitution owed to Ricky Mouton. When Em expresses shock over the probation officer’s fee, Lena confirms for him that people on probation are indeed expected to pay the state for their time. They also front the cost for drug tests.
GM: Looking it up, Lena finds there’s a flat $60 monthly fee for the probation officer, and $42 per drug test.
Emmett: “You’d think they’d just go ahead and stop arresting people,” he mutters.
GM: “Arresting people can bring in a lot of revenue. Sometimes, anyway.” Lena frowns. “Okay, next big expense… how much did your public defender cost you?”
Emmett: “Ten grand, or thereabouts. The prick seemed pretty happy, considering.”
GM: Lena blinks. “The state charged you $10,000 for a public defender’s plea deal? That’s insane.”
Emmett: Em frowns. “Uh, I think so. Is that unusual? The dude seemed to think it was pretty standard.”
The frown deepens. His tone isn’t aggressive; he’s unsure. Here is a crippled man concerned about his own ability to help himself out of the grave he’s dug. Nothing more. Inside, he’s sweating.
GM: Em’s sister nods and frowns at the same time. “Someone had to have goofed up your legal bill. I should talk with my lawyer to make sure, though. What was your defender’s name?”
Emmett: He frowns slightly. “Villars, I think.”
Shit, shit shit.
GM: “Do you remember his first name?”
Emmett: “Something with a B. Bernie, Bertie, something like that.”
GM: Lena spends the next several minutes Googling Villars’ name and calling the state’s public defender office. By the time she’s finished, her frown has deepened.
“Emmett, this man is a private attorney. He couldn’t have represented you. And the ten thousand dollar fee. That’s high even for a private attorney, if all you got was a plea deal.”
The expression on Lena’s plump face abruptly goes flat.
“All right, enough of the bullshit. What aren’t you telling me this time?”
Emmett: He tries to think of an answer.
He really does.
All of it. Everything these past few days. It’s all too fucking much.
GM: Lena stares at her still-tongued baby brother with an increasingly severe expression as he sweats, then finally snaps, “All right. That says it all.”
She gets up, takes Em’s wheelchair by the handles, and starts pushing him out of the room.
Emmett: He lets her.
GM: “Paula! Come help me get Em back into the car.”
Lena’s housekeeper follows them outside and helps her employer separately load the legless cripple and his wheelchair into the SUV. Lena gets in, turns the ignition, and pulls out of the driveway.
Emmett: Em speaks in the car. He speaks, because Cash Money left him his tongue. He’s the king of two courts. The actor on the stage. He’s invincible.
And that Em is dead. He can’t save himself. But he can save her.
“I’m not a good person, Lena.”
He waits, giving her a second to speak.
GM: Lena’s eyes stay fixed on the road. “Expensive toys for the kids whenever you visit. A swank apartment on Royal Street. No job beyond audition-seeking. And now this ten thousand dollar legal bill. People aren’t as dumb as you think, Emmett. Those things don’t add up. I don’t know what it does add up to. But you’re right that it’s nothing good.”
Emmett: He giggles. It isn’t as unstable as it should be; the irony is genuinely amusing.
“Yeah, well. This whole week has been about me realizing exactly how stupid I am. Makes sense everybody else is a bit cleverer.”
He breathes. Air is sweet. He should learn to enjoy it.
“I’m going to tell you who I really am, sis. And then you’ll drive me to the hospital and never talk to me again. I’ll probably go to prison. Or you could just leave me by the side of the road. You won’t love me anymore. That’s fine. That’s smart. But I’ve gotta tell you this. Because I still love you.”
GM: Lena isn’t laughing. In the slightest. Her knuckles clench around as the steering wheel as she replies in a tight voice, “It’s like a shot, Emmett. Best to just get it over with.”
Emmett: “Oh, yeah.” He chuckles. “I’m a thief. Obviously. Just not as good a one as I thought. Goddamn, I’ve done some things. You remember what Clarice always told us? That there’s a special place in Hell for children who act like they’re perfect? I tried to prove her wrong.”
He’s unable to look away from the window. Not out of cowardice. But God, how fast the world whips past. There goes a tree. There goes the neighborhood he liked to take walks in. There go his legs. There goes Emmett.
GM: Touro doesn’t draw the sightseers like the Garden District does. But it still has sights worth seeing.
There’s that synagogue. He hears it’s pretty old.
Some other house. Nice like Lena’s.
That house looks even nicer.
There’s the hospital where his sister works.
Touro Shakspeare Home. Do they read Shakespeare there, perform plays? And do they mean ‘Shakspeare’? It’s missing the extra ‘e’ it should have, like Em is missing the legs he should have.
Emmett: Somehow, it’s a comfort to know that someone else is missing something too.
“I ripped people off,” he says. “Acting’s lying for a living, right? So’s swindling. And the money was good, man. Oh, boy, it was great.” He chuckles. “I let go of everything anybody told me was important. And holy shit, was it fun. You know how freeing it is not to care about anybody but yourself, Lena?”
He never thought he’d think so, but it feels nice to tell the truth.
GM: Lena’s face is oddly tranquil throughout Em’s confession. There isn’t surprise written on it. Or disappointment. It’s not acceptance either. Just a simple… tiredness. The kind that comes when someone takes a shower and goes to bed after a long, sweaty day under the hot Dixie sun. Except the shower is cold, and the bed is hard and lumpy, but they have no choice but to make do.
“No, Emmett, I don’t know what it’s like. I haven’t had that luxury ever since I became responsible for seven and a half pounds of helpless life that was completely dependent upon her caregivers. Then another seven, after her brother came along.”
“And look where we are now,” she says slowly. “I hope the fun has been worth it.”
Emmett: “Probably would have said so, once.”
Outside, the world outruns him. Granted, that’s not so hard anymore.
“Somebody’s going to come by your home in a week. Dixie Mob. Pay them eleven grand. Don’t help with my hospital bills, or getting me that state assistance. Just pay them, and forget about me.”
He’s never realized how beautiful this city is.
GM: Lena blinks.
Emmett: “Villars. The lawyer. He’s a scumbag. He put me on the phone with the Mob, and I didn’t realize who I was borrowing from or what the stakes were when he did.”
GM: Lena stops the car dead in the middle of the road, sending the breaks squealing.
Emmett: “Oh, come on. You heard me.”
He misses the pretty whoosh that life was making a few seconds ago. He sighs.
“Worst thing I’ve ever done, completely by accident. I was half-doped up at the time. Not that it makes it better, obviously.”
GM: The car remains stopped. Lena doesn’t unbuckle her seatbelt. She stares at Em flabbergastedly, then demands, “Why on EARTH is the… Mob coming to MY house?!”
Emmett: “That wasn’t me. Villars, apparently, figured you would take me in. Apparently, he also found your address. Oh, and the reason he did all this was to pay my legal fee. Would have gone to prison if I had known the real cost.” He’s got an itch on his nose that he cannot fucking scratch and somehow, that is all he can think about at the moment.
GM: Lena just stares at him, her face at a total loss.
Emmett: “Deep breaths,” he advises.
GM: Em’s still-tender cheek burns as his sister slaps it.
Emmett: He takes it silently, and then says, softly, “Feels good, right?”
GM: Lena is visibly shaking as her face flushes red. “What happens to my children, Emmett, if I don’t pay these people?”
Emmett: “You can pay them. At the very least, you can make the minimum weekly payment, which if I had to guess isn’t more than, like, a grand or two. Bud probably should have explained that to me.”
GM: Lena’s eyes bore into his. Another car honks several times from behind their stopped vehicle, but she doesn’t turn around. “I’m not asking you again. What. Happens.”
Emmett: “The guy said he’d kill my family, just before he hung up but—please stop panicking—that’s stupid business, though, they’d lose money. Could be broken bones, mutilation, what have you. Actually, probably not anything too permanent, at least not the first week. I honestly don’t know, but I can safely say that you’re going to want to pay them or take a long, long vacation.”
Damn that itch.
I’m sorry, Lena. But to say it would infuriate her, so he doesn’t.
GM: Lena slaps him again. Harder. Her next hoarse words are almost a shout.
“You handed my kids’ lives over to the MAFIA!?”
Emmett: “No, I handed my life over to an unknown caller and then found out I’d accidentally done the unthinkable. I literally had no idea what was happening until the guy on the phone said, ‘great, Em, short any payments and we’ll kill your family. Have yerself a dandy dixie day.’ Then he hung up.”
He blinks tears out of his eyes. The world becomes blurry and beautiful. God, it hurts.
GM: “I don’t believe this,” Lena states numbly. “I just don’t believe this.”
She’s slumped back in her seat. Her next words don’t sound like they’re addressed to Em.
“I don’t know who you are.”
Emmett: “I told you. An awful, parasitic excuse of a person. Who you never have to see again. And who really, really loves you. And my niece. And nephew. You don’t have to think about anything, Lena. You just have to pay the monsters who come to your door and forget I ever existed. It’ll be like a shot.”
GM: Lena stares directly at Em again and holds up a finger. Red starts to re-color her face.
“Don’t. You. Dare talk to me about love right now.”
GM: She fishes a phone out of her pocket and dials a number.
“Dan? You need to pick up the kids and take them to your mom’s. Possibly for a long time. I’ll explain later.”
Confused chatter sounds from the other end as she hangs up.
Emmett: “Oh, and don’t even think of going to the cops,” he adds. “They’re infested, Lena. You’ll end up in a ditch for the nerve.”
GM: She dials another number. “Mom?”
Emmett: “Oh. Right.”
GM: “You were right. I was wrong. About everything.”
There’s an indistinct voice.
“Yes. Don’t put him on your insurance. I’ll explain later.”
She hangs up to the sound of more confused chatter.
Emmett: “Right, so you can dump me or drop me at Tulane, but uh, yeah. Cops aren’t a good idea. Good news is, though, I’ll almost definitely get sent to the Farm anyway.”
GM: “No, Emmett, I’m not going to leave you here when a good samaritan might stop to help.” Lena looks as if she might shake her head, but she still doesn’t look all the way there. Another car honks from behind theirs. She ignores it and mutters, “God knows you’d only spit in their face.”
Lena drives back back to Tulane Medical Center. She does not speak a word for the rest of the trip. When the pair arrive outside the brick-like building, Em’s sister doesn’t literally throw him out of the car: she just dumps him on the side of the curb. She does not help him into the wheelchair she unloads from the SUV’s rear with more care than she shows her brother. The effective paraplegic is left to writhe helplessly on the asphalt while onlookers stare and gawk. A few laugh and pull out their phones to snap videos.
Lena closes the car door without a glance back, pulls out of the parking lot, and out of Em’s life.
And good for her. Exit, stage right. He has little to feel proud over, and less to feel happy about. But the world becomes a rush of noise and people and consequences, whooshing by like a car window.
Em stares at the sky. He waits, for somebody to help if they wish or leave him if they don’t. The world isn’t a nice place. He isn’t a good person. But he could be worse, and somehow, that means a lot. He wonders what the crowd thinks. It must be odd to see a cripple looking happy.
GM: Hospital staff eventually haul Em back onto his wheelchair and cart him inside. Dr. Brown stares down at the cripple with another shadow-rimmed smile and cheerfully tells him that it’s good he changed his mind. “You should still be in bed anyways. Doctor’s orders, after all!” That’ll even net him some extra time before his jail sentence starts.
Emmett: Em says nothing. It’s about time he learned how.
GM: No one charges him with anything. Em is placed in a non-ICU, partitioned hospital room he shares with another patient. She’s an older woman who was attacked by a home invader (who also didn’t steal anything, oddly enough). Her teenage son comes by frequently with food. As Em can well attest, what passes for it in the hospital tastes terrible. The two laugh about random things to keep their spirits up, sometimes cry, reminisce of memories gone by, and plan for a future Em may no longer have.
Now it is not tears that fall like sand in an hourglass, but days of the young cripple’s life.
Steadily trickling away.