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gale deitch

New Fiction


by Gale Deitch

      In the waiting room at the unemployment office, Emily sits rigid in the metal folding chair, her legs crossed at the ankles. She smooths the box pleats on her black linen skirt, drying her perspiring palms. An ancient air conditioning unit rattles from the sole window in the room and periodically coughs out a ragged breath. Emily clasps her hands in her lap, resolute not to remove her suit jacket.
      The woman facing Emily, wearing a hot pink camisole and too much eyeliner, one leg slung over the other, repeatedly cracks her gum, chewing and swinging her leg in perfect synchrony. Beside her, a harried young mother attempts to keep her two toddlers by her side while nursing a baby. Emily shifts her legs just in time as one of the tots waddles by, his fingers red and sticky from the lollypop hanging from his mouth. The man next to Emily, who’s been snoring and exhaling his sour whiskey breath, slumps toward her, and she bolts to her feet as soon as the receptionist announces her name.
      “There must be some mistake,” she explains to the interviewer. “I don’t belong here. I tried to apply for unemployment online, but it wasn’t working.”
      “Yes. Sometimes we have problems with our website.” The woman glances up with flat gray eyes, then back down at her paperwork. “You were dismissed from where?”
      Emily studies the intricate pattern of corn rows on the woman’s head. “Well, I wasn’t actually dismissed. It was a budget issue. Once it’s approved, they said they would call me back in.”
      “You were dismissed from where, Miss Wentworth?” The woman sighs and lifts her head as if it were heavy as a bowling ball.
      “The Katharine Scott School, a private girl’s school. You know, for daughters of prestigious families in town, city officials, wealthy business owners.” Now this woman would understand that Emily does not belong here.
      “And your position at the school?”
      “Counselor. To help the girls with course selection, college applications, internships. And I taught a wonderful workshop on etiquette. Very popular with the parents.” No response from the woman, who continues to fill in the form. “Listen, I just need to receive unemployment until I get my job back.”
      “Please sign here, Miss Wentworth, next to the x.” She pushes the paper across the desk to Emily, who scrawls her name above the signature line.
      “Is that it? Am I free to go now?”
      The woman retrieves a file from a stack, opens it and pulls out a sheet of paper. “You’ll report to the Child Protective Agency at eight on Monday morning. Here’s the address. They’ll give you your assignment when you get there.” She stands.
       “What do you mean, report there on Monday morning? For what?”
      “To work, of course. You have a degree in Social Work. They need case workers. You need a job.” The woman shoves the paper at Emily and walks to the door. “Next.”
      The woman has already turned her back and is signaling the young mother and her toddlers back to her office.

       Emily organizes her mail, slitting open the bills and marking the envelopes with their due dates, then dumping the junk mail into the recycling bin. Sliding the desk drawer open, she pulls out and unfolds the note she’s examined every day for the past month.
      “Em, I’m leaving you. I care for you, but I can’t do this anymore, can’t be what you want me to be. Mason.”
      Emily stares at the note then refolds it, first in half, then in quarters, matching the ends corner to corner and keeping the creases sharp, then replaces the note back into the drawer.
      Mason’s side of the closet is empty, his unused wooden hangers seeming to swing in celebration of their newfound freedom. Emily removes her pumps and lines them up with the others. Mason’s shoes used to sit in a jumble on his side of the closet, running shoes upturned on top of cordovan loafers, black wing tips scuffed by distressed leather chukka boots.
      She answers the phone on the first ring. “Oh. Hi, Mom.”
      “You seem disappointed. Hoping it was him, weren’t you? Emmy, it’s been weeks and he hasn’t called you once. I love you, baby, but you need to move on.”
      “Mom, I know you have good intentions, but I really think he’s going to call.”
       “Now tell me how it went at unemployment today.”
       Emily groans. “They gave me a job at Child Protective Services. How am I going to do that? I’m a school counselor.”
      “You know you can always come home. Our arms are open wide for you, baby.”
      Emily stiffens. “No, Mom. I want to be here when Mason comes back.”

      Emily sets up the ironing board Sunday evening and starts in on a freshly-laundered white cotton blouse. As the steaming iron sails over the sleeves and yoke, her shoulders tense. Weaving in and out between the buttons on the placket and then along the body of the blouse, her heart begins to pound as she wonders what the job entails, if she can handle it. She smooths the collar to sharp, stiff points, then perches the blouse on a hanger to admire her work.
      On Monday, ready for battle in her crisp white blouse and charcoal gray suit, Emily steps out of her silver Volvo, her dark hair smoothed back in what Mason used to call a “severe bun.” Professional, she thinks; nothing severe about it. She’s heard awful stories about the streets in this part of town, and eyeing the young men sitting on a stoop nearby, beeps the horn with her remote a second time.
      The Child Protective Agency is housed in a brownstone that looks more like an apartment house than an office building. At eight a.m. the place is already buzzing, phones ringing, people scurrying by, a baby crying. Emily has to wait seven minutes, yes she’s timed it, for the receptionist to hang up the phone.
      “Emily Wentworth here.”
      “Where?” The receptionist looks to the right and the left and then stands to peer over the tall ledge that rims her desk. “Where is she?”
      “I’m Emily Wentworth. Reporting for duty.”
      “Huh?” The skinny redhead behind the desk looks barely old enough to be out of high school, much less working the front desk of a city government agency.
      Emily smiles. Young women she can deal with. She misses the girls from the Scott School. “Let me start again. I’m Emily Wentworth. I was sent by the unemployment office. I’m supposed to start work here today.”
      “Oh, sorry. Nobody told me another new person was starting today. Tanya will show you the ropes. Tanya,” she yells over the din.
      A striking woman, statuesque with caramel skin and close-cropped honey-colored hair, emerges. “You must be Ms. Wentworth, correct?” She holds a clipboard in one hand and sticks the other hand out at Emily to shake. “Welcome.”
      Emily barely nods before she’s being led down the corridor to a dark, corner cubicle.
      “This is your new home. Check out the files on your desk, get familiar with them, and then we’ll talk. The red-flagged files need to be addressed immediately; yellow requires a visit to solve issues before they get too serious. Files with a green flag are new, and hopefully successful, placements.”
      “What do the blue flags mean?”
      “Stable. Those kids have been in foster homes for a while with no problems reported. Wish we had more of those. Listen, honey, Mondays are pretty busy around here, so I’ll get back with you later.” Tanya’s gone in an instant.
      Emily clicks on her desk lamp. The walls have yellowed long ago, and a musty odor lurks in the air. She extracts a tissue from her purse and swipes it across the cracked Naugahyde chair and the few sections of wood veneer that peek out between the stacks of files. She would have to bring in some Lysol and furniture polish tomorrow.
      Emily decides to start with a red-flagged file at the top of the stack, a fifteen-year-old girl named Tamika with a ragged, stained file folder probably as old as she is. A runaway from six different foster families, she’s been thrown out of two schools and already has three arrests for drug possession and prostitution. Her mug shot, stapled to the inside cover of the folder, expresses indifference and insolence. But Emily has worked with adolescent girls enough to see the desperation in this young woman’s eyes.
      Emily scans her way through three more folders, twin boys who’ve been separated and placed in different foster homes; a six-month old crack baby who’s been placed twice, with the current foster parents ready to give him up as well; and a five-year-old girl, evidently all skin and bones, who refuses to eat.
      Temples bulging, she stops before opening the next folder, closes her eyes and begins deep breathing exercises. How do people work in a place like this that houses nightmare after nightmare? How is she going to work in a place like this? Her eyes still closed, hands in the lotus position, Emily inhales for the count of ten. Exhales. “One…two…three…four…five… six--”
      “What’cha doin’?”
      Emily jumps and her eyes spring open. A boy stands in front of her, head cocked to one side.
      “I said ‘What’cha doin’?” His chestnut skin shines like a polished apple.
      “Deep breathing exercises to help me relax.”
      “What’cha need to relax for? You at work. There ain’t no relaxin’ at work.”
      She thinks about this a moment and looks into the boy’s hazel eyes. “Well, sometimes when things get very busy, it helps me to relax. Then I can do my work even better because I’m not so stressed.”
       The boy smiles, showing two deep dimples. “Ya’ think that’ll help me relax, too? I get stressed all the time.”
       Emily smiles back at him. “It might. What’s your name?”
       “Germaine. Who you?”
       “I’m Emily.” She holds out her hand to shake his. “I’ll be working here for a while.”
       “Where’s Mizz Baker?” He leans against the desk, resting one sneakered shoe on top of the other one.
       “I don’t know. I’m new. Did Miss Baker sit at this desk?”
       “Uh-huh. I guess she done left, too, like they all do. They all here for a while, like you say, then they gone.”
       “Well, I’m happy to meet you, Germaine. Can I help you with something today?”
       He frowns. “If you can get my sister, Jasmine. She need to be with me so’s I can protect her. I promised my mama I’d take care a’ her.”
       “Where is Jasmine?”
       “She in some foster home and I can’t find her. No one’ll tell me where she is. She need me.” He leans in close to Emily and whispers, “Will you get her for me?”
       “How old are you, Germaine?”
       “Twelve,” he says, sticking out his chin.
       “Are you sure about that?” Emily can see he is closer to eight or nine.
       “I’m old enough to take care a’ Jasmine real good.”
       “I’ll tell you what. This is my first day here. Let me look into the matter. I’m not sure what I can or can’t do. Give me a little time to figure things out. Okay?”
      He surveys her a moment, then nods. “Okay. You figger things out and I’ll be back next week. Pinky swear?”
      He holds out his little finger and Emily loops hers around his. “Pinky swear.”
      Emily spends the next hour reading Germaine’s and Jasmine’s folders, both blue-flagged. Typical story. The father, Jeremiah Greene, serving time for another five years, and the mother, twenty-six year old Daniela Jones, in rehab. Germaine is with his second foster family in two years. Seven-year-old Jasmine resides with a different foster family, but social workers who’ve visited in the past suspected some kind of abuse. Nothing proven. Emily reads the folder from cover to cover, but finds no real attempt to investigate the suspicions.
      “How’s it going?” Tanya asks, still holding her clipboard.
      “Eye-opening. Tanya, is there another folder for Jasmine Greene? This one seems to be incomplete. Suspicions of an abusive foster parent, but no investigation.”
      “Honey, did you see all those files on your desk? Well, believe me, you have a light load. We can’t keep up with all the cases that come through this office. All we have time for are placements. Get these kids a home and then hope for the best.”
      “Hope for the best? What if it’s a dangerous situation? They’re just dropped off to fend for themselves?”
      “Initially, yes. If there’s proof of abuse, we remove them to another family. But we just don’t have the kind of time it takes to visit all these foster homes, much less determine what’s going on behind closed doors.” Tanya shrugs. “I know it sounds heartless, but we do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
      Emily straightens. “How much leverage do I have with my cases? Do I have the authority to visit the homes and make some decisions?”
      “Certainly. But I don’t know how you’ll find the time. You’ve got at least three kids who are coming out of foster homes and need new placements. You have two parole officers to speak to and several high school principals to try to persuade not to expel our kids.”
      “If I have the authority, then I’ll find the time.” Emily moves Germaine’s and Jasmine’s files to the side of her desk to bring home with her.
      Tanya puts her hand on Emily’s shoulder. “Just one thing: don’t get personally involved with these kids. They will pull on your heartstrings and hold them tight. Remember that, honey.”

      At home that evening, Emily sorts the mail, pulls out Mason’s note for another read and then folds it carefully back into the desk drawer. She hangs up her suit and lines up her shoes with the others, then lingers at Mason’s empty hangers as they swing free. She nukes her Lean Cuisine Chicken Stir Fry and centers it on a placemat, fork on the left, knife on the right. Sometimes Mason would get home early to surprise her with a spaghetti dinner and Chianti or a spicy curry stew. Had she really responded by chiding him about the mess of dirty pots and his haphazard table setting? No wonder he’d left her.
      After the constant racket in the office all day, the silence of her apartment deafens her.
      She turns on the news. Two young men have been shot and killed on the south side of town only three blocks from each other. A convenience store manager was robbed at gunpoint. A young woman walking home from her bus stop was pulled into the bushes and raped.
      Emily turns off the TV.
      Germaine lives on these mean streets, already at a disadvantage. All he wants is a normal life with his sister. What chance does either of them have?
      She dials her mother. “Hey. Just wanted to say, ‘thank you.’”
      “For what?”
      “For giving me a normal life. A better-than-normal life. How many kids get the chance to grow up riding horses in the country?”
      “What brought this on?”
      “I don’t know. Just life. Love you, Mom.”
      “Love you, too. Emmy, you ought to come home for the weekend. You can sleep in and I’ll spoil you with a big pancake breakfast. Spirit misses you. Won’t let anyone else ride her.”
      “Mm. I miss her, too. And you.”
      She hangs up, leans back on the beige sofa and surveys the room. Non-distinct walls, furniture, carpet. “Emily’s Life in Neutrals,” an artist would call his painting.

      By the following week, after minimal training, she’s been given the go-ahead. Emily chooses some of the red-flagged files and maps out her day, which includes a stop at the juvenile detention center, and appointments with a parole officer and a high school principal. At lunch time, she’ll visit Jasmine’s elementary school. The girl’s file has been at the bottom of the stack. She hasn’t been visited for fourteen months. Emily, in fact, plans to pull out all the blue-flagged files to intersperse with other, more imperative visits. She doubts all of these placements are “stable” as Tanya had said. Someone has to check up on them.
      At the detention center, Tamika eyes Emily with suspicion and refuses to answer her questions, spewing out obscenities instead. So far, no one from the agency has provided the teen with any “child protection,” so why should Tamika think differently about her. Emily makes a note to speak with the warden and with the girl’s court-appointed lawyer. Maybe there’s something she can do.
      Her visits with the parole officer and principal are more successful. She convinces them both to give her time to get acclimated and to meet with the kids in question before taking harsh actions.
      Jasmine is a petite seven-year-old with Germaine’s hazel eyes and dimples. Tiny braids cover her head, each topped with a pink or purple bead. Her lavender sundress is clean and freshly pressed. She sits unsmiling with downturned eyes.
      “Jasmine, you look very pretty today.”
      The little girl is silent.
      Emily tries again. “Your brother Germaine asked me to visit you.”
      She looks up, her mouth open, eyes wide.
      “He misses you and wants to make sure you’re okay.” Emily lowers her voice to a whisper. “Are you okay, Jasmine? What should I tell him?”
      “You tell G’maine I miss him, too,” she whispers back.
      “He wants to see you. I thought I would speak to your foster parents and ask about a visit with Germaine. What do you think—?”
      Jasmine is shaking her head wildly, her braids batting back and forth. “No, don’ do that. Don’ you talk to them. They--”
      “They what?”
      “Jus’ don’ come. Tha’s all.” Jasmine shakes her head again and runs out of the room.
      Emily’s conversation with the teacher doesn’t help much either. “Jasmine always comes to school clean and well-groomed. She‘s very well-behaved, but quiet, doesn’t participate too much.”
      “Have you seen anything that doesn’t look right to you?”
      The young woman appears barely older than the students at the Katharine Scott School, but Emily can see the dedication in her earnest expression. She shakes her head. “Not really. There are days when Jasmine is so tired I let her put her head down to rest. Some days she doesn’t show up at all. Her foster mother calls in that she’s not feeling well and we just mark it as an absence.”
      “How often does that happen?”
      “More often than we’d like. A few days each month. We don’t know much about the background of these foster children, but many were crack babies. I suppose they might feel the effects for quite some time.”

      Emily looks up from her desk to a smiling Germaine. “Does your foster mom know where you are?”
      “I don’t have to be home for dinner ‘til six. So, did you find my sister?”
      Emily smiles. “Better than that, I talked to Jasmine the other day.”
      “You did? Was she okay? How did she look? Did you tell her I wanna see her?”
      “Whoa, boy. One question at a time.” Emily sighs. She’s had her head buried in files and needs a break. “Germaine, why don’t we go for a walk.”
      The sun hits hard as they head down the block to the small patch of grass that serves as a park for the community. One weathered bench with missing boards is otherwise occupied by a sleeping homeless man surrounded by black plastic bags of his belongings.
      Emily blots her face and neck with a tissue. Her beige linen suit feels heavy and cumbersome in the hot rays, and she knows how the homeless man must roast in his many layers of clothing.
      “Miss Emily, why don’t you take off your jacket?”
      Why not? Out here, no one cares how she’s dressed. In her office, in fact, no one cares either. Many of her co-workers wear cropped pants, tank tops and sandals. If they have an appointment, they throw on a blazer to add some professionalism. Emily pulls off her jacket, relieved that she’s wearing a short-sleeved cotton blouse.
      “And your shoes, too.” Germaine points to her pumps, which are sinking into the ground with each step.
      She steps out of her heels and onto the dry blades of grass. It’s not the moist, lush fields she’d grown up with on the horse farm. But it feels good to connect with nature again, in whatever form.
      Germaine sits on the grass and pats the ground for her to do the same. The alarm in her head shouts, “Grass stains on your Ann Taylor skirt.” Oh well, that’s what dry cleaners are for.
      Emily leans back on her hands. “Jasmine looked so pretty.”
      “Really? Did she seem…okay?”
      Emily thinks a moment before answering. She wants to be honest with Germaine. “I’m not sure. She was quiet. Maybe because she didn’t know me.”
      “Did you tell her I ask’ you to visit?”
      “Yes. I told her that you miss her and she said to tell you she missed you, too.”
      “I have somethin’ for you to give her next time.” He unzips his backpack and retrieves a threadbare, pale pink cloth. “This her baby blanket. She never been without it until they took her. Her fosta parents, they didn’t wan’ it. You take it to her.”
      Emily reaches for the blanket and puts it against her cheek. It’s softer than she’d expected.
      “You tell her I want to visit?”
      “I did.” A bumble bee hovers above a nearby dandelion.
      Germaine leans toward her. “So?”
      “She doesn’t want me to talk to her foster parents.” Emily glances toward Germaine.
      “Why not?”
      Emily shrugs. “I’m not sure. Maybe she thinks they’ll be angry with her.”
      Germaine scrambles to his feet. “Angry jus’ cause you wanna talk to them? It sounds like she scared. You gotta go over there and check things out. Right away.”
      He starts to pace back and forth, gesturing as he speaks. “Somethin’s not right over there. I knew it. I could jus’ feel it.” He stops in front of Emily and holds out his hands. “You gotta go over there, Miss Emily.”
      “I know,” she murmurs. “I know.”

      Emily folds Jasmine’s blanket and lays it across the back of her sofa. All evening, she finds herself touching the baby blanket, clutching it and thinking about the sense of loss the little girl must have felt without it.
      She watches the steam rise as she irons a pink and white shirtdress that she’d retrieved from the back of her closet. Mason had been with her when she’d bought it, a weekend dress. Nothing she would wear at the Katharine Scott School. She hangs it in the closet, barely glancing at the empty hangers. As a last thought before bed, Emily opens her desk drawer and draws out Mason’s note, which she’d forgotten to do earlier. She examines and refolds it, then slips it back into the drawer.

      She checks in at the office and gathers files for her day’s visits. Her first stop, though, will be Jasmine’s foster home while the little girl is at school. The small house sits on a shady side street. Lawns on this street are well-trimmed, and the houses generally well-maintained. Jasmine’s foster home is no exception.
      Emily rings the doorbell and waits. She’s never made an unannounced house call and swallows hard, looking down at her pumps to make sure they shine. Her hair today is pulled back into a pony tail and she wonders if she looks professional enough to make this visit. Emily rings again. The records state that the wife does not work outside the home, but there hasn’t been a visit in over a year. The situation might have changed. Then she hears footsteps and the door swings open.
      “Yeah, what do you want? No soliciting here. Didn’t you see the sign on the gate?” The woman wears a flowered robe and fuzzy slippers. Dark brown hair, streaked with auburn highlights, frames her freckled face. She glares at Emily.
      “Mrs. Wilson? I’m from the Child Protective Agency, just making a routine visit to see how Jasmine is getting on. May I come in?”
      A momentary flash of alarm crosses the woman’s face, but she stands back to allow Emily into the living room. “Her teacher tol’ me you visited the school last week and talked with Jasmine.”
      Emily hadn’t realized the school would contact the foster parents, and she hopes they haven’t taken it out on Jasmine. “Yes, I did. Very sweet girl. I assure you, Mrs. Wilson, this is just routine. I’m new at the agency and noticed Jasmine hadn’t had a visit for a while. I’m following up on all my cases.”
      Mrs. Wilson seems to breathe easier. “Cup a’coffee?”
      “No, thank you. I just want to ask a few questions. May I?” Emily asks, pointing to a chair.
      “Course. Sit down.” The woman sits on the sofa facing Emily and waits.
      Emily takes out her checklist and begins a series of routine questions. “Who is living in the household? Just you and Mr. Wilson? Don’t you have a teenage son as well? How is Jasmine getting along here? How does she relate with you? With Mr. Wilson? With her foster brother?
      “Mrs. Wilson, does she get enough sleep? I understand Jasmine is sometimes tired when she gets to school and needs to lay her head on the desk to rest.”
      The woman scowls. “Sleeping in school? Well, I’ll have to have a talking-to with that child. She know betta’ than that.”
      “No, please don’t do that, Mrs. Wilson. Her teacher assures me that Jasmine is very well-behaved in class and does well with her classwork. I just want to find out why she is sometimes so tired at school. Does she get enough sleep at night?”
      “Well, a’ course she gets her sleep. I tuck her in every night at eight a’clock.”
      Emily marks this on her questionnaire and then clears her throat and looks Mrs. Wilson directly in the eye. “Is there something that might…awaken her at night?”
       Mrs. Wilson stands up. “What are you implyin’, young lady?” She shakes her finger at Emily. “You thinkin’ somethin’ funny go on here?”
      “I’m just trying to understand why Jasmine would be so tired. When was her last medical checkup?” Emily looks down at her checklist.
      “I-I don’t remember. When she sick, I give her medicine to make her feel better. You know, Tylenol or Pepto Bismol. She’s doin’ fine. Doctors’ visits are expensive.”
      Emily looks up again. “Mrs. Wilson, the foster system pays you very well to take care of things like that. Regular medical checkups are part of the agreement you signed. We’d like her to have a checkup in the next couple of weeks, and we’ll need a doctor’s report. Here is a pediatrician’s name and number. Please schedule a visit right away.”
      Emily stands and heads for the door. Then she turns.
      “Oh, and one more thing. I want to schedule a visit for Jasmine with her brother. The agency feels it would be healthy for both of them to reconnect. I’ll be picking her up on Saturday morning at seven and will have her home by eight o’clock that evening. Make sure she’s ready, please.”
      The stunned woman, mouth open, nods in agreement.

      On Friday, Emily comes home to a voice message.
      Beep. “Miss Wentworth. This is the Katharine Scott School. Good news. The budget has been approved by the Board. We’ll need you back at work promptly on Monday morning.”
      Emily pauses, her hand hovering above the answering machine. In her four years at the Scott School, she hadn’t once produced the kind of results she has in just the past few weeks at the Child Protection Agency. She glances at the pink blanket draped over her sofa. The one she’ll be giving to Jasmine tomorrow morning. Then she presses the button and erases the message.
      Emily sorts her mail and then opens the desk drawer. Mason’s note sits neatly in place. She slides it out of the drawer and notices for the first time how the creases have grayed and begun to fray. She unfolds the paper and strains to make out the faded words. “…I can’t do this anymore, can’t be what you want me to be,” she reads, then crumples it in her fist and tosses it into the recycling bin with the junk mail.

       Emily checks the rear view mirror and smiles. Germaine and Jasmine sit buckled into the back seat of her car, each holding one end of the pink blanket. Germaine is beaming at his sister. They both have a long, bumpy road ahead of them, but his persistence over the past couple of years has finally paid off. And Emily is the one who made it happen.
      “All set?” she asks over her shoulder as she pulls out of the parking space.
      “Uh-huh. We sho’ are, Miss Emily,” Germaine bellows.
      Heading out of the city, she thinks of the red, yellow and blue-flagged folders piled on her desk, each representing a child with a tragic story, each shouting for attention, shouting for Emily’s attention. Maybe she could make a difference in some of their lives. Maybe not. But she would try.
      As she exits onto the interstate, Emily opens her window and releases the band from her ponytail, letting her hair blow loose and wild.
      “Hi, Mom,” she announces into the speaker phone. “Listen, I’ll be there in an hour with a couple of friends. How about that big pancake breakfast you promised? I’ll explain when I get there. Lots of things to iron out.”

Gale Deitch recently published a culinary mystery, “A Fine Fix,” the first in her Trudie Fine Mystery Series. Her short fiction has been published in The Rusty Nail literary magazine and her poetry appears in the Maryland Writers Association anthology, “life in me like grass on fire, love poems.” A native of the Washington, D.C., area, Gale works for a large non-profit senior living system and resides in Rockville, Maryland.

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