The Red Purse
By Louise Moeri

I know we are not supposed to judge people, but where Kennie was concerned, I found it impossible. I decided he was the wrong person in the wrong kind of work. I'm a swing-shift nursing supervisor, and it's my job to evaluate workers' performances at a convalescent hospital.

Kennie was a new employee, tall and very strong, not bad looking, with his blond hair cut to the collar and dark green eyes. After a few weeks' probation, I had to admit he was clean, punctual and reasonably efficient. But I just didn't like him. Kennie looked like a hood. I knew the neighborhood he came from - a cesspool of gangs, drugs and violence. His language was street talk, his manner wry, his walk springy and controlled like a boxer's, and his expression closed off like the steel door on a bank vault. He seemed too large and carefully controlling of a powerful will to be able to fit into the highly specialized teamwork of a convalescent hospital.

The vast majority of our patients come to us in the final stages of terminal disease or with the most terminal of all diseases - old age. They come to us crippled, weakened, confused and defeated, no longer able to function out in the world. Many have lost the faculty of rational thought, a casualty of failing health and a world that often seems brutal and indifferent.

Mary B. was one of those. Attendants call her Mary B. because she was one of four Marys in the West Wing. At ninety-four years old, Mary B. was frail as a cobweb. She outlived her husband and sisters, and if she had any children, they had long since abandoned her. She was in almost constant motion as long as she was awake.

Mary B. had an obsession that someone had taken her purse. She searched for it all hours of the day and night. Unless tied to her bed or wheelchair, she would go through the door onto the street, into the men's wards, through the laundry room and into the kitchen, mindlessly searching and never giving up. When restrained, she wanted her wheelchair in the hallway, where she stopped everyone who came near.

"Can you lend me a comb?" she asked. "I've lost mine. It was in my red purse. My money is gone, too. Where is my purse? Where is my purse?"

Every day it was the same, until Mary B.'s queries became background noise, like the sound of carts loaded with hot trays rumbling down the halls, the hum of air conditioning or the static of the intercom.

We all knew Mary didn't have a purse. But on occasion someone would stop to listen to her out of kindness and concern, although we were furiously busy. Still, most of us maneuvered around her with, "Sure, Mary, if I see your purse I'll bring it back."

Most of us - but one.

The last thing I expected of Kennie was that he would listen to Mary B., but strangely, he always had a word for her.

What is he up to? I wondered, watching him. My first suspicion was that he might be working here to steal drugs. I thought I had spotted a potential troublemaker.

Every day as Mary B. stopped him to ask about her purse, and as Kennie promised to look for it, my suspicions grew. Finally I concluded that Kennie was planning something involving Mary. He's going to steal drugs, I told myself, and somehow hide them around Mary. Then some accomplice will come in and sneak them out of the hospital. I was so sure of all this that I set up more security systems around the drug-dispensing department.

One afternoon, just before supper, I saw Kennie walking down the hall with a plastic grocery bag in his hand. It was obviously heavy.

This is it, I told myself, scrambling from behind my desk. I started after him, but realized I needed more evidence. I halted behind a laundry cart, piled high with baskets.

It was tall enough to conceal me, but I still could see Kennie clearly as he strode down the hall toward Mary B. in her wheelchair.

He reached Mary and suddenly turned, looking over his shoulder. I dodged out of sight, but I could still see him peering up and down the hall. It was clear he didn't want anyone to see what he was doing.

He raised the bag. I froze...until he pulled out a red purse.

Mary's thin old hands flew up to her face in a gesture of wonder and joy, then flew out hungrily like a starved child taking bread. Mary B. grabbed the red purse. She held it for a moment, just to see it, then pressed it to her breast, rocking it like a baby.

Kennie turned and glanced sharply all around. Satisfied no one was watching, he leaned over, unsnapped the flap, reached in and showed Mary a red comb, small coin purse and a pair of children's toy spectacles.

Tears of joy were pouring down Mary's face. At least, I guessed they were.

Tears streaked my face, too.

Kennie patted Mary lightly on the shoulder, crumpled the plastic grocery bag, threw it into the nearby waste-can, then went about his work down the hall.

I walked back to my desk, sat down, reached into the bottom drawer and brought out my battered old Bible. Turning to the seventh chapter of Matthew I asked the Lord to forgive me...

At the end of the shift, I stood near the door used by the aides coming to and leaving work. Kennie came bouncing down the hall carrying his coat and radio.

"Hi, Kennie," I said. "How's everything going? Do you think you'll like this job?"

Kennie looked surprised, then shrugged. "It's the best I'll ever get," he grunted.

"Nursing is a good career," I ventured. An idea was growing. "Uh, have you ever thought of going on to college for a registered nursing degree?"

Kennie snorted. "Are you kidding? I ain't got a chance for anything like that. The nurse's aide course was free or I wouldn't have this job."

I knew this was true. Kennie set down his radio and pulled on his coat. "Take a miracle for me to go to college," he said. "My old man's in San Quentin, and my old lady does cocaine."

I clenched my teeth but still smiled. "Miracles do happen," I told him. "Would you go to college if I could find a way to help you with the money?"

Kennie stared at me. All at once the hood vanished, and I caught a glimpse of what could be. " Yes!" was all he said. But it was enough.

"Good night, Kennie," I said as he reached for the door handle. "I'm sure something can be worked out."

I was sure, too, that in Room 306 of the West Wing, Mary B. was sleeping quietly, both her arms wrapped around a red purse.