Sabina and the Peaceful Nation: An Original Propaganda in Four Parts
By Ness Blackbird
Part the Third: In which Marta employs her entrepreneurial groove and transforms a veterinary hospital a.k.a heroin front into a prayer healing sanctuary with help from an inspired janitor/doctor
When Marta first came from school to run the clinic, she went to the house of her uncle Pyotr, who kept the clinic, he said, as a tax write-off. His much younger wife brought tea and cakes and left them alone.
“Thank you for giving me this good experience running a business, uncle Pyotr,” said Marta politely in Russian. “I promise I will do well.”
“You’ll do fine,” he growled back English. “Just stay calm, and pay taxes. Don’t let them push you around. You have an accountant to help, whatever you need. Tell me if you need anything.” Marta crossed her arms.
“I can do it myself.” Uncle Pyotr smiled through his mustache.
…And that was pretty much that. The next day she went down to the clinic to introduce herself and start figuring out the books. The summer passed quickly.
Marta stamped down the short hallway, between the rows of cages, ignoring the sad meowing of an aged calico recovering from surgery, and grabbed Sarah Houseman, who was drawing blood from an enormous, forgiving Newfoundland.
“Marta, hold on, would you?”
“Another gunshot wound,” said Marta. “Bleeding pretty bad, I think arm is broken.”
“Sweet Jesus.” Sarah finished the draw, and smoothly removed the needle.
“Come on. He’s no Newfy but I don’t want him to die.”
“I’m not a people doctor, Marta.”
“More than me.” In the treatment room, young Jason was fussing with the bloody bandages on the massive arm of a short, powerfully built man in his fifties. His face was set in a stoic scowl. Marta eyed him admiringly. She had a weakness for Russian thugs.
“Let’s get an X-ray,” said Sarah.
“How much cost?” asked the patient.
“We can’t bill your insurance,” said Sarah. “Our regular rates are thirty dollars for the office visit and twenty for an X-ray. I need you to sign a waiver and promise not to sue us. We’re not set up to treat people.”
“No insurance, no hospital,” he grunted. “Sign and promise?” he looked at her dubiously.
“The waiver isn’t much good in court,” explained Sarah. The enforcer closed his eyes.
Marta stayed late to help with the patient, but he didn’t give her so much as a thank you when he left.
The urban darkness was alive with voices as Marta walked home late in the evening. Teenagers slouched down the street, boomboxes screaming obscenities. Children up late ran through the scraggly bushes, giggling. Cars cruised the street hookers, sometimes opening their doors. Drug dealers waited in doorways, but they knew better than to call out to her. This was the Russian district, and everyone knew she was related to uncle Pyotr.
Behind her house lived an old homeless couple, John and Marimey. John had worked for one of the transportation authorities as a younger man, until his mind started to wander; then he’d been a janitor, until the episodes got worse. He still got a little disability money, but it wasn’t enough for an apartment. Marimey had been a prostitute until a customer cut her face and it healed poorly. She still brought in a few dollars, despite the scarring and her age and overweight. John liked to help out the other street dwellers, giving away dollar bills at the beginning of the month, but this attracted predators, and the couple had no way to protect themselves. Twice John had been badly beaten when Marta came home, with Marimey crying and lying close in the alley. The second time Marta had taken him to the clinic with a broken jaw.
She’d gotten a habit of feeding them towards the end of the month, though she didn’t want to get too attached, because she suspected they wouldn’t live long. It’s just a little thing, told herself. I can afford it. There was no reason to be sentimental.
Tonight Marta said Hi and started up the back stairs to her apartment.
“I’m pregnant!” called John up to her, giggling. “It’s the third time this spring. Marta, get me some oysters and pickles!” Three gunshots banged from somewhere a few blocks away. Light caliber, from the sound. Light-caliber fire rarely resulted in injuries, Marta had learned: it was just kids playing at being gangsters.
“Oh, leave her alone,” shushed Marimey. “She’s just getting off work. And you can’t be pregnant, you’re a man.”
“No oysters on menu tonight,” said Marta. “Maybe tomorrow. Tonight, vodka and black bread.”
“I never let him drink,” said Marimey. “It gives him episodes.”
“Then just bread,” said Marta, and went inside. “Honey, I’m home.” Charlie was running around the kitchen trying to make borscht and vareniky. The ancient linoleum of the floor was littered with potato peelings and snippets of beet greens.
“Hi Marta! I’m making borscht! Just like your mother used to make!”
“My mother put too much onion,” said Marta. “What for you need onion in a borscht?”
“Well, I was going to put in an onion or two, the recipe calls for it…”
“OK, mom. I’m drinking vodka like good Russian girl. You want any?”
“Pwajalste. Right? Did I get it right?”
“No,” said Marta. “But will sound much better with vodka. Get some in your nose.”
“You shouldn’t drink so much, you know Marta?”
“You drinking too.”
“Yes, but this is all I’ve had this week. You drink it like water.”
“Is like mother’s milk to Russian. Better than water.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever, I’m just saying. Maybe it has something to do with your job? How can you work in your uncle’s business? He’s, like, some kind of a crime lord! And how can you be treating humans there? You’re going to get sued, you know, and what will your uncle say then?”
“Ah. Good reason to drink.”
“I mean, what do you really want to do with your life? Work for uncle Pyotr?”
“OK, OK, I’m call Listener Line.” But she really meant she’d call Sabina. Sabina always listened, and she’d be having breakfast in Jerusalem about now. Marta settled down in the living room with vodka and black bread, rang up Sabina, and told her about the thug they’d fixed up that evening.
“How can you be treating people?” asked Sabina. “It’s a veterinary clinic. You’re not allowed to treat people.”
“Allowed in emergency,” said Marta. “Emergency situation. Like when people don’t have health insurance, can’t get help. Hospitals don’t have to take them any more. Quotas. Just let them die. Emergency clinics have more permissions now.”
“So it’s really a human clinic now?”
“Well…more people finding out about us. No one has health insurance. Medicare no good. All health clinics overworked, expensive. We are cheap—insurance much cheaper for treating dogs.”
“God, that’s so sad, Marta, I mean that no one has insurance. But you can’t save the entire city. I thought the clinic was only supposed to be a tax shelter for your uncle.”
“Is good clinic. How’s Israel? You sign up lots of penpals yet?”
“I’ve done pretty well, thank you. Let’s see, it’s been nine weeks and I’ve personally signed almost two hundred Israelis to be penpals with Palestinians. And peace is coming, I swear you can feel it. There’s a new feeling on streets here. Even though I don’t speak much Hebrew. People are talking peace.”
“Good job Sabina. How your dad?”
“He’s good. He’s going to therapy. I’m supposed to do a family session with him when I get back to town.”
“Therapy no good. Got to work. Just work. Problems go away.”
“Don’t get all Russian on me, Marta. Is it true there are Peaceful Nation police forces in D.C. now? What are they doing? Something about gang territories?”
“Yes, enforcing business territories for gangs. Complicated. Big agreements. Is working though, less gunshot wounds these days. More older patients, cancer, diabetes.”
“How can the PN police be enforcing all that? They stop all the drugs, the gangs, everything?”
“No, no, they don’t stop it. Harm reduction model. They stop underground business—like my uncle—from operate in each other territories. Agreements. Reduce fighting. Drug laws not enforced. Register prostitutes, make them safe sex. You know, condoms, AIDS tests, hepatitis. Hire lots of people from the neighborhoods, black police in black neighborhood, my cousin Boris here. He liaise to my uncle. Is working. I think.”
“Wow. So you’re getting people with cancer and diabetes? What can you do for them?”
“You know Insulin, chemotherapy, yada yada.”
“And you’re really allowed to treat them?”
“Harm reduction. But Sarah doesn’t like it. Says she’s not a people doctor.”
“I get it...look, Marta, I was wondering if me and Danny could come stay with you for a few days when we come back to the U.S? We’ll be in D.C.”
“Sure. Come any time. You can sleep in back alley with homeless people.”
“Yeah, I know it’s a bad neighborhood, but I’m not as paranoid since I’ve been living here in Jerusalem. I think we’ll be OK.”
“OK, see you.”
They saw more and more humans at the clinic as the summer wore on. As the ceasefire took hold, black people from the neighboring underground business territory started to come. The clinic handled the influx as best they could, though the stress showed. Sarah stopped complaining, but Marta knew she wasn’t happy. Valentina and Pavel didn’t care who they treated, but Marta didn’t like Pavel working on humans. His drinking interfered with his work, and Marta suspected he’d never be a very good vet, even sober. She planned to replace him, but job postings in online veterinary job boards were completely useless. It was no longer properly a veterinary job. In September, Sarah gave notice, and the problem became urgent. Charlie thought it was only to be expected.
“Marta, veterinarians don’t want to work for a dangerous, low-pay clinic where they have to treat humans,” he said. “You’ll have to go back to treating just animals.”
“People don’t have nothing else,” said Marta. “No choices. Hospitals don’t let them in except to die maybe. They all have quotas for poor people now. I want to do it.”
“Well, sure, if you got the right vet—some kind of a cross between a saint and a Saint Bernard. Why don’t you try Doctors Without Borders? They serve desperate people in Africa and stuff—why not here in DC?”
“No permissions to hire a doctor.”
“Well…don’t hire them as a doctor! Hire them as a, a tech or something.”
“Techs need certify.”
“Well, I don’t know. Hire them as a janitor! Why not? If you got the right kind of saint, maybe they’d be willing to help!”
It was the best idea she could find. She began to try to track down a sainted doctor. When she explained the idea, potential applicants apologized and backed out; in the meantime the clinic was starting to get seriously behind. They were taking calls from people and animals with urgent conditions, and making appointments for the following week. The staff was stressed out.
Then Morris Mayers called. He was interested in the job. He wasn’t worried about the salary, or the neighborhood. He was an M.D. It was too good to be true, but Marta wasn’t in a position to quibble.
“When you can start?”
“Well, as soon as I can get there. I’m in France right now. I’ve been working on a different project out here, but I don’t think it’s going to work out.”
“When you get here?”
“Well…it would help if you could send me a plane ticket.”
At last the thought crossed Marta’s mind: What am I getting myself into?
Morris the “janitor” certainly wasn’t lazy – or shy. In his first three days, he rearranged the space, changing the staff room into a treatment room and vice versa, set up a new computer database for human patients, drew up new waivers, hung posters, cleaned the basement, ordered a bunch of homeopathic supplies, and generally made the place his own. He was working 14-hour days. The staff looked on in bewilderment.
He started treating patients. When people came in for treatment they were told to wait in his treatment room; then he would come in and help them, explaining that in an emergency situation, such as lack of other alternatives for medical care, they could be treated at a veterinary clinic. He didn’t mention that he wasn’t a vet, or that he was, technically, a janitor.
Not much later Marta began to suspect something strange was going on. Patients seeing Morris left looking bewildered, shaking their heads. Valentina seemed uncomfortable with him. He spent a lot of time at his computer, furiously writing emails, his fingers a blur. When Marta noticed a camera flash going off in the treatment room, she cornered him.
“What you taking pictures for?”
“Prayer project, Marta.”
“Prayer project. You’ve heard of experiments where patients who are prayed for have better outcomes than controls…this isn’t basically different, except that it’s not really an experiment. No controls. We already know it works. I just get a picture of each patient, and post it on the Peaceful Nation website, in the spiritual section. Thanks to a friend in the administration, we have pretty high priority, so a lot of people are seeing my posts, and they’ve been praying for the patients! The system tracks the minutes they pray so we can follow up, find out what works best. See, the experiments were mostly done with professional clerics –”
“Stop. Won’t help. Just do doctor things.”
“Of course it helps! Haven’t you read –”
“No, haven’t read, won’t read. Silly. Stop it.”
“Well, Marta, this is what I came here for. I thought you’d be willing, since you’re a Peaceful Nation citizen and…” he trailed off. Marta looked like she’d been eating lemons. Then she looked like she would tear his throat out. Then she took a deep breath.
“Fine. Need a doctor, you’re the doctor. Remember to do doctor things, drugs, surgery, not just praying.”
“OK, OK, jeez. It does help…” But Marta was stamping off down the hall.
To Marta’s annoyance, the project quickly blossomed out of control. It was discussed on the main Peaceful Nation newsfeed. There was a feature in the Washington Post. She heard people talking about it in the supermarket. There were hundreds of people praying for the patients, then thousands. Patients still shook their heads, but they started to come in greater and greater numbers. Morris said it was working. There was no lack of sick people; soon Morris was seeing more patients than he could handle, and he started talking to Marta about hiring another doctor/janitor.
Marta went to ask uncle Pyotr what he thought. She wasn’t too surprised when he said he was going to close the clinic.
“Too much attention. Not your fault, you’ve just been trying to take care of business. Damn doctor is crazy. Not your fault. Close it Monday. You can work on distribution for me.” He was talking about heroin.
“Uncle –” Marta suddenly felt herself on thin ice. “I’ve been thinking of taking a vacation anyway. Maybe it would be a good time for me to take a break.”
That weekend Sabina and Danny showed up.
“Oh Marta, he can’t close it after all this! I’ve heard treatment outcomes are out the roof!”
“Closing Monday. Laying them all off. Too bad.”
“Well, hell—I’ll buy the damned clinic! It’s making money, isn’t it?”
“Maybe. Little bit. If not sued.”
“Good enough. It can be a limited liability corporation. My father will put up the money.”
“Yes he will! I’m not going to give him much choice!”
Marta looked at her searchingly.
“What happened Sabina?” she said to Danny. “Something happened in Israel.”
“Yeah,” said Danny. “Got an attitude. Can’t wait to see what she does to father in therapy.”
Ness Blackbird lives in the Portland, Oregon, USA district of the Peaceful Nation. Since he realized that the “USA” is an outdated concept (a fact which has been understood by multinational corporations for some years), he has been devoting his time to global democracy.