3 Dr. God
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57 3 Dr. God Philomena was the most alone person I have ever known. She’d lie in her bed at St. Anthony’s—in the same corner room that had once belonged to Little Chuck—and cry. Every now and again, she’d take out the engagement ring that her former fiancé had given to her before she’d gotten sick, before she blew up like a blowfish, her cheeks massive, her forehead shiny, before her legs began to give out on her and she could no longer control her bladder, before she started wearing giant-sized Pampers and regurgitating even small amounts of orange juice. She’d hold the ring in her hands, turn it over, put it back in a small black box, and place the box in her top dresser drawer, with her socks and underpants. “Why don’t you wear it on a chain around your neck?” Caroline, one of the caregivers, would ask her. “It will remind you that you are loved.” “This I cannot do.” Philomena was Nigerian: this part of her history I knew. The rest was fuzzy. More than once, she’d told me her story, but the pieces didn’t add up. For example, she told me that she’d contracted HIV from an accident that had occurred to her while she was at work, as a physical therapist somewhere in Florida. She said that one day when she was working in a hospital, she slipped and fell on the floor, where she came into contact with contaminated blood. This made no sense to me. I also couldn’t figure out how she had gotten from Nigeria to Florida, or why, after Florida, she’d come to Baton Rouge. All I knew was that every Tuesday morning when I showed up at St. Anthony’s, she was in her room, waiting. Sometimes she’d just lie there, utterly silent, but other times, she couldn’t shut up. “Please, Jennifer, to take me on a drive. They do not like me here. They want me gone. Take me away from here where they do not take proper care of me. I have a university diploma. This they do not understand. I am from Africa. They do not understand Africa. They think it is all darkness there, but it is all darkness here, all darkness, and without light. I have such a terrible pain. I cannot eat. I cannot drink. They make me take food, but I cannot eat it. Why do they force me to take food, which I can no longer keep down?” “Philomena, now, you’s wearing that Pampers I helps put on you, right?” “You see what I mean, Jennifer? They treat me as if I were an infant, an ignorant worker, a person without an education. I have a university degree. I am an educated person.” “Now, Philomena, you know that ain’t the way it is. We all love you here, but Jennifer can’t take you out in her van if you going to have an accident.” “I am fine.” And so I’d take her out, driving up Government Street through midcity and into the Garden District, where my own airy home sits well back from the street behind two enormous magnolia trees—the lovely, leafy green Garden District, where people drink iced tea in deeply shaded back gardens, and wisteria vines cover brick walls—and onto the city lakes, where I’d drive slowly, chattering away about nothing in particular, and Philomena, by my side, would gaze out, the tears sliding slowly down her brown cheeks. On other days, I’d point my minivan in another direction, heading to a nearby subdivision of enormous one- and two-story houses sitting back on perfectly manicured broad green lawns: we’d pass French chateaus, neoTudors , Greek Revival monstrosities, and enormous raised Acadian cottages with six-car garages. The streets were always silent: it’s a neighborhood of houses seemingly devoid of human occupants, but it’s the closest thing Baton Rouge has to Beverly Hills or Lakeshore Drive. How some people live, huh? I’d say, as if I’d never been in this corner of Baton Rouge before, as if my children didn’t play with the children of these sprawling Prairie-style mansions, swimming in their backyard swimming pools and watching their giant-screened televisions. I’d be so full of shit that I’d 58 embarrass myself, but Philomena, gazing out...


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