Years ago I worked as a medical records transcriptionist: you know, one of those people who listens to doctors on tape and types reports. Medical transcriptionists are odd people. They tend to be highly intelligent people without a proper education, or with some damage in their lives that never allowed them to be successful professionals. So there were quite a few eccentrics, and we all were pretty tolerant of each other’s oddities.
Clara started at this job about the same time I did. She was a cheerful woman in her late 30s, full of energy and enthusiasm. She was quite overweight but very bouncy, and had a lot of charisma and personal intensity. She was highly intelligent, had a great sense of humor, and was very social, and she and I hit it off right away.
Clara had been raised Seventh Day Adventist in a family of brilliant doctors (many SDA people go into medicine), and was the only one in her family not to go off to be a brilliant doctor. Instead, she got married, the marriage didn’t go well, and she was the single mother of five kids. An assortment of other troubles plagued her. She had recently been operated on for some type of gynecological cancer, for one thing. And her divorce was especially bad; her husband had molested the youngest child, and apparently had been convicted of this and was on house arrest with one of those electronic bracelets.
Clara herself managed to be fairly cheerful despite these struggles. She played piano beautifully in the hospital chapel on her lunch breaks, brought in cartoons to share (she and I were both fans of the very early Dilbert), and worked lots of extra hours, doing excellent work. However, fate continued to dog her.
A few months after I met her, Clara’s oldest daughter (13) was diagnosed with leukemia. The expense and suffering of this were as bad as you might expect, and Clara was quite down about it, but persevered pretty well.
During this time, we had a big I.T. project going at the hospital, and a couple of programmers from an outside company were frequently in the office. Clara struck up a friendship with one of them, and the friendship continued outside the office, where she began to attend the same church as he did. As a refugee from the SDA church, she was particularly in need of some spiritual “food”, and was glad to find a more welcoming environment.
Occasionally I’d hear about Clara’s boyfriend, who seemed like an interesting guy. He was quite wealthy and helped her with some of her financial troubles, as well as flying her to San Francisco for the weekend occasionally, or sending her nice gifts at the office (like a small TREE). The boyfriend was also an aviator, and during the Gulf War of 1991 was called up from the Reserves to fly B-52 bombers, which worried her greatly.
She still had great troubles with her ex husband, who apparently was demanding money from her and being threatening despite his magic bracelet. At one point she was preparing some court evidence and showed me photos of her car with fire damage; he had apparently committed some act of minor arson.
During the Los Angeles Riots, in which many of my coworkers suffered quite a bit, Clara got a bit into the thick of it as well; she related that she and her boyfriend were driving across town when a group of rioters attempted to carjack them and he fired shots.
About 18 months into my friendship with Clara I asked her one day how her daughter, the leukemia victim, was doing. “Oh she’s fine!” was the sparkly reply. This hit me a bit wrong. People with leukemia aren’t “fine”. They’re dead, or in remission.
I mentioned this to my boss, who looked at me with that deadpan you-can’t-be-serious look. “Yeah. And her boyfriend? He doesn’t exist.”
“She buys those gifts herself. Look, Clara is nice, but she is insane. I know things you don’t.”
At which point it all fell into place. Every current event of interest had some Clara in it. Every time a dramatic story lost its novelty and luster, a new one replaced it. Clara was a severe pathological liar. There was no boyfriend, no uterine cancer, no arsonist molester of an ex, no leukemic child, none of it. Only a very bright and very unhappy unwanted woman who’d been rejected by her family and was sinking under the burden of raising five kids on her own.
After that I was still very friendly with Clara but also a bit worried. The programmer she’d been socializing with outside work was, too; apparently she was about as close to stalking him as you can get without breaking the law. She’d wait in her car outside his house and call him too often. Her religious enthusiasm wasn’t entirely pure, it seemed.
What haunts me is the image of her kids. I only met them a couple of times, when she had them with her as she picked up a paycheck. All five of them, silent and ghostly, standing there as she carried on with that miraculous patter of hers, sparkly and fun and entirely false. What was that like for them, I wonder?
When I became the boss of the department, I was quite glad that Clara had gone on to another job. I didn’t want to know whatever my previous boss hadn’t told me.