The parking lot at Walgreens is packed. People no doubt are stocking up on prescriptions, over-the-counter-meds, toilet paper in preparation for isolation. I need a feminine product I forgot to get at the grocery store earlier.
Inside, the store doesn’t reflect the full lot outside. Where is everyone? Is there a party in the backroom I don’t know about? I pick up my product and take it to the cashier.
For once there is no line. That in and of itself is strange. There’s almost always a long line of people in this store, sighing impatiently and rolling their eyes. Often, I am one of those people.
I hand the cashier a twenty and glance to my left. Standing about seven feet from me is an older woman wearing a loosely tied hospital gown, baggy hospital looking pants, and worn out sneakers. She is drinking liquid out of a glass bottle, her right hand shaking as she holds it to her lips.
Her appearance, so unexpected in this setting, is shocking. I begin to wonder if I’ve entered a twilight zone.
I look closely at her. She could be anywhere from 60-75 years old. It’s hard to tell if it’s age or hard living showing up on her face. Her hair is dirty blond, thin and dry, either from poor diet, medication, or too much home dying and perming.
She is shaking. She is in some kind of trouble. People don’t walk into stores wearing hospital gowns. Pajamas, slippers, curlers in their hair yes, but not this.
I can’t help myself. I never could keep my mouth shut. “Ma’am,” I say. “Are you supposed to be in the hospital?”
Her voice sounds stronger and more reasonable than her appearance. “I was quarantined for three days. But don’t worry, I’m not contagious.”
Could she be referring to COVID-19, the deadly, novel virus sweeping America and the world? The cashier, a young woman in her late teens, hands me my change. She is looking at the woman warily, probably wondering how to get out of having to wait on her.
I persist, because the older woman looks like she needs help. People that are okay don’t walk into stores in hospital gowns, and she is shaking. More than her attire, it is the shaking that troubles me.
“Did they let you out of the hospital without your clothes?” I ask her. “Do you need help?”
The smile that passes over her weathered face is full of mischief. “I couldn’t take being in there anymore.”
It dawns on me in that moment that she must have escaped! There is a hospital across the street from this store. Was she suspected of having COVID-19, placed under quarantine, and left against medical advice? I could imagine it. I had a great aunt who used to do it all the time. Whenever she had chest pains, she would call an ambulance, be taken to the ER, then against medical advice, would call a cab and leave for home.
I have a decision to make. Do I ask more questions, try to further assess the situation? If I do, am I responsible for what might come next, like guiding her somewhere safe, calling a family member for her, maybe contacting the police? The situation could get complicated, and was it really any of my business? For all I know, she has someone waiting outside for her in a car.
My instincts are telling me to help. How can I live with myself if I don’t? My mind is telling me to leave it alone. She might have Coronavirus, for goodness sake.
I lean over and whisper to the cashier, “You may want to call your manager. She looks like she needs help.” And I leave.