By Bill Vernon
Although the biggest elephant in the world is loose in the building, I voluntarily check-in at the reception desk. A wall clock insists it is exactly 7:17, which I write down by my name then enter the lobby where about 20 residents are present. Some wear street clothes, a few bathrobes, two moves with walkers, the others are stationary, sitting, three crowded onto a love seat facing a large glass cage in which brightly coloured birds flit back and forth. The bird chatter carries clearly to me, but I think it must be amplified from such a distance away.
Four hallways spoke off this circular room, this hub, to other sections of the “Home.” I veer right toward the hall where bedridden 75-year-old Jane lives in SW113. The white paper gift bag I carry, with bright red, blue and yellow balloon designs, is for her.
When a television erupts with rapturous cries from people winning money on a game show, it distracts me enough to bump a wheelchair accidentally. I apologize, “Excuse me,” but the person in the chair doesn’t hear. She’s propped up with pillows; waist belted onto the chair’s frame so that she can bend over her lap without falling to the floor. I step forward to go on, but the woman’s profile stops me.
The shape of her head. Can it be?
“Spittle runs from a corner of her mouth; her lips flutter but release no sound.”
“Yvonne? Is that you? Yvonne?!” No reaction. I repeat the name and touch her shoulder.
She slowly straightens up, unfolding in sections, her head finally coming up and back so that her eyes open upon me. My God, it is Yvonne!
She stares at me blankly, though perhaps half asleep, not yet fully awake after dozing.
I say, “Bonjour. C’est moi, Bill,” which I try to pronounce the French way, Belle, as she always said it.
I audited four semesters of her French classes 15 years ago. We were colleagues for 30 years, attended faculty meetings, served on committees together, and chatted many times. I expect my pronunciation to evoke her beautiful smile, her perky sense of humour, her easy laugh, and it’s all that remains in my mind.
Spittle runs from a corner of her mouth; her lips flutter but release no sound. Something like a crusty dab of mashed potatoes is on one cheek.
I go down on a knee, so we’re level. “Ca va?”
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Her eyes stare without recognition. Did she have a stroke? Wouldn’t I have heard? No. I’ve heard from none of our mutual friends in a decade. Maybe she’s drugged. I’ve seen many people humped over as she was because of that in other facilities.
I babble about people we both know, things we’ve done in the past, how the school has changed since we taught there. That goes on for several minutes, stimulating no response. I finally pat her clasped hands, tell her it was great to see her and return to the reception desk, which of course, refuses to tell me much.
I’m not on its list of Yvonne’s visitors, not a relative, and an unnamed daughter is the facility’s contact person. I can leave a note for the daughter if I want to. I decide no, not today. I don’t know Yvonne’s children; I don’t want to intrude. I’m also afraid to learn how bad off she is.
My purpose for being here takes me to Jane. She opens my gift, thanks me, eats a “fancy” chocolate from the box inside, says yum, then asks who I am. I’ve been asking that myself.
I say, “Bill, your husband of 50 years,” and chat with Jane without much connection. When her eyelids begin drooping, I kiss her cheek and go; almost run, in fact.
“The idiotic escape in my old Honda hasn’t emptied Yvonne from my mind.”
Yvonne is slumped over, probably asleep, when I hurry back through the lobby. To work in a place like this would be difficult. I couldn’t do it. To live here, to be a resident? I don’t want to think about it.
From the parking lot, agitation directs me to the nearby interstate highway where the snow has melted, clearing the asphalt for rubber tires. I ramp down onto it, race along its nearly empty three lanes, reach over 80 mph at one point, cover six miles in minutes, then take the first exit. It’s not a fugue. I know I’m doing it. I’ve chosen to do it, and I’ve chosen to quit doing it. I also know driving that way is dangerous and stupid, I could have wrecked and hurt other people, so I feel guilty.
Keeping active guards me from dwelling morosely on negative matters. I daily walk five to eight miles and lift weights. Action is my habit but an antidote to nothing. It does produce a centrifugal force, a spinning center that throws loose things like dilemmas out to the edges and off. Its Coriolis effect deflects approaching problems away from the outer edge of my spinning.
Deflecting and expelling work most of the time, but not now. The idiotic escape in my old Honda hasn’t emptied Yvonne from my mind. Nor Jane. Anything seems better than sitting around, listening to the clock tick.
In my garage, I turn off the engine and lights, sit in the dark, and imagine driving Route I-75 to its end, taking Canadian roads as far north as I can get, then hiking into the bush, sitting down, and letting the Arctic winter have its way.
Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it in Dayton, Ohio. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction occasionally appear in a variety of magazines and anthologies.