He shuffles oh so carefully, with a little hitch and a little swing to get each foot forward when it is time for it to go forward. It’s the system Robert Thompson has devised to keep himself from falling. Holding his hand against the pale blue wallpaper, paper he pasted there when Eisenhower was president and no one had ever walked on the moon, he works his way into the front room of the house. Past the framed photograph of a scrubbed cherubic girlchild, her black braids reflecting bright sunlight, her infectious smile missing two front teeth. Past the “Footprints” prayer, carefully laminated and trimmed. Past the wall calendar, annotated with birthdays, anniversaries, due dates for bills and medication schedules. That white woman is still there. In his chair. Plaid shirt, blue jeans. Dressed like she lives here. She’s reading a book. She glances up at him, she smiles. He turns, step-shuffles back to the hallway. Hand on wall, he traces his way to the bedroom door, then turns and stands there for some time, looking back into the room at her. She speaks. “If there’s anything you need, Mr. Thompson, just let me know.”
“Thank you.” He’s aware of the lilt in his voice, the emphasis that shows his appreciation is genuine. He just might need something. He just might. But where is that other woman who gets him what he needs? The one with chocolate brown skin and pepper gray hair. He’s deeply puzzled by her absence. He turns away from the bedroom and carefully rounds the corner into the kitchen.
Now, for a moment, he forgets his dilemma. Something in a bowl on the counter distracts him. Looks like it might be good to eat. It’s right there, right in front of him. He takes some in his hand and tastes it. It’s a familiar taste. Macaroni. His mind grabs the word. Ah, but then that woman peeks in from the other end of the kitchen. He knows suddenly that the food isn’t supposed to be in his hand. He hurriedly puts it to his mouth and manages to stuff most of the macaroni in, hiding the evidence. He expects to be scolded: has a sudden picture of his mother flash through his memory. But this woman—the one who has appeared in his house, in his kitchen—her face tells him she feels as if she has intruded.
“Do you mind if I get myself a drink of water?” He mutely acknowledges her request, hitches to the side to let her pass to the sink. He watches while she finds a glass in the cupboard, fills it with cold water, drinks it down. Then he turns and makes his way into the hallway again.
He can hear her washing the glass out, placing it in the dish drainer. From his vantage point in the hallway, he sees her return to his chair in the living room and resume reading the book. The woman he’s looking for reads out loud to him from this book. But she would never sit in his chair. She sits in one of the straight back chairs from the dining alcove. She reads something to him every night from this book. She reads of the abundance of blessing in the world. He considers asking the strange woman to read to him. Did she say she would? I can’t remember.
He turns to collect his thoughts. There is a door in front of him. He opens the door. His thoughts are not there. He turns back toward the living room. “Now who are you?” he asks, finally admitting his confusion.
She smiles. The smile reminds him of someone, but he can’t quite place who that would be. “I’m Deanna, your next door neighbor, Mr. Thompson. Your daughter Rosalie called to ask me to stay with you until she gets here. She went with Mrs. Thompson to the hospital, but she’ll be here soon.”
Robert Thompson frowns. These words “Rosalie,” “Mrs. Thompson,” “hospital” don’t hold any particular meaning for him at this moment. Or perhaps they do. He’s not sure. He turns, faces the bathroom door. He turns. He faces the bedroom door. He is looking for a woman with brown skin and gray hair. He turns again. There is another door. Where did all these doors come from? He opens it, revealing a steep descending staircase, with a gate across the top step. It frightens him, makes him fear he may fall. He closes that door and holds the wall. There is something else he is trying to remember. He focuses on his feet, hitches himself along and inches back into the kitchen again. This woman calls him Mr. Thompson. Most of them, most white women, call him Robert or even Bob. His mother called him Robert. Always. And when she was angry, she called him Robert Edward Thompson. She was tall, like him; thin too, like him. He hasn’t seen her for a long time, except in his dreams. The woman he is looking for now is the one who can call him Bob, or even Baby, without offending him. Where is she? He opens the refrigerator. Not in there. He closes the refrigerator. It’s the refrigerator they bought the day that plane blew up over Scotland. That was on the news when we brought it in and…there’s something else he is trying to remember. There’s a feeling in his bladder, a kind of pressure. I ought to remember what to do about that. He starts toward the dining alcove.
He stops when he sees that woman. She is reading the book. Sitting in my chair. Anna—that’s it, the name of the woman… my wife… she reads to me about there being a time for everything. A time to sow, a time to die, and… something about stones.
Anna would know what to do about this feeling. Anna isn’t here. This woman who is here is watching me. “Are you hungry, Mr. Thompson?” asks the stranger. “Did you have supper yet?” Something like an old radio with bad reception sounds in his head. It says “Robert Edward Thompson.” A warm feeling spreads, a wet feeling.
He feels a sudden need to dissemble. “I got rid of it already,” he chuckles. The woman nods noncommittally, a weak, tentative smile on her face. Then she turns away, like she got caught doing something she shouldn’t.
Oh, he misses Anna. Suddenly, it makes him want to cry. He notices the telephone and he remembers her talking about him. Not on the telephone, though. She was outside, in the back. She was telling someone, telling that woman!—that woman sitting in my chair—telling her when she asked if I wanted my supper I said I’d rather wait till my wife got home. “It doesn’t do me a bit of good to worry about it,” she had said. “I wait ten minutes and he knows who I am. That’s just how he is. In and out, in and out. Mostly out, but every now and then he’s just as clear as he can be. Then it goes away again. I told him, ‘you sure must’ve known something like this would happen to be so good to me all those years.’ That’s the truth, too. Nobody had it better than I did. He was always here for me. Always here. And you know he did everything around the house. He put the roof on this house. He built that garage. He put these shingles on. Oh, he kept it up so well. I sure can’t expect him to do any of that now, and you know I’m not about to get up on this ladder and fix anything. That’s why I’m putting this concrete down here. I don’t want any more grass to mow.” Robert had stepped through the door then, holding the telephone receiver. “What you got there, Baby?” she’d asked. “Put it back, Bob.” Then she’d turned to the woman at the fence and chuckled. “I got to go on inside now. He’s liable to try to cook that telephone, or flush it down the toilet. He doesn’t know what it is anymore.” And Anna had put down the concrete patio block she’d been about to install, then turned to hurry up the steps. She took the telephone and she said I was always here.
What would Anna say to him now? Would she scold him about his wet pants? He thinks she might. But she wouldn’t call me Robert Edward. Would she help him change his clothes? He knows she would. Would she ask what he needs? He would like that. He could tell her he needs dry pants. He can’t tell this other woman. Why, I hardly even know her.
She is getting up and walking to the front window, walking away from Robert’s restless shuffling and turning. She is looking out the window. Now she is turning too, returning to his chair. Robert has been facing that room from his post in the hallway. He hurriedly turns away. She knows. She knows I’m wet… “Can I help you with anything?” she asks and the vagueness annoys him. They both know what she means. Why does she have to beat around the bush?
“No!” He feels almost ferocious. Well, that answered her. She’s back to the book. She picks it up and sits down again. This morning, or maybe it was some other morning, Anna had read to him from that book. She’d read that all prayers are answered. Robert tries to remember what a prayer is.
He turns his back to the woman. He looks at the toilet. It makes him angry. Then again, he can’t quite remember what he is angry about. He turns back to the living room. He hitches and shuffles into it. He looks behind a chair next to the door against the wall. She’s not there. Brown, big-boned woman. Grey hair. She calls me Baby, makes me milkshakes, holds me, helps me get my feet up on the bed when I’m tired and want to go to sleep. And all these doors! With nothing useful behind them! And I would like to lie down on the bed but I need that woman to help me and I’m not supposed to lie down on the bed because my clothes are wet. She has enough to do without having to change the sheets every day.
The thoughts leave as suddenly as they came. He is staring blankly at a stranger in his chair. The chair he’s had since Kennedy was shot. He sat in that chair the day he watched the march. He doesn’t remember that now. He doesn’t remember anything right at this second. A dull panic washes up on him. He steadies himself, holds the wall. The panic recedes.
The woman in the chair jumps up now and crosses to the window. “They’re here,” she announces.
Next thing he knows, there’s a whole bunch of people coming through the front door. One of them looks a little familiar. Ms. Fancy, with her blue suit and pink blouse. The other three he’s never seen before. White coats, all of them. They’ve got a damn bed in the middle of my living room.
“Papa,” says the one who reminds him of someone, “you’re going to go somewhere where they can take care of you. Mama can’t come home for at least a week, probably two. She’s tired; she needs to rest. She can’t take care of you until she comes home. These folks are going to take you to Sunset Acres. It’s a place where they can take care of you.”
Why does she have to repeat herself?
“Hi, Bob.” There’s a little thing with a skirt that’s way too short. “Can I get you to sit down on the cot?”
“No, I don’t believe so,” he replies carefully, politely, in spite of her impertinence. “I believe I’ll wait for my wife to come home.”
“She’s not coming home tonight, Papa,” Ms. Fancy Woman says, an edge to her voice. There’s no need to be irritated. “You need to go with these folks so you can get some sleep tonight.”
“I’m not tired.”
“Papa,” says the woman, and surprises him by crying, “Papa, I can’t stay here with you. And this lady has to go home too.” She nods her head at the one who took his chair. He blinks slowly, and feels his hands move as if trying to grasp something.
One of the young men speaks now. The other listens and nods. “Bob, I’m going to help you sit down on the edge of the cot.” Suddenly they surround him, force him off his feet. Fear of the fall takes him over. A little sob escapes. Who are these people? She wouldn’t let them do this. If she were here. Where is she? Their hands are all over him, oh my god, even on his wet clothes and now he’s sitting, belted to the cot, held in place by straps. He didn’t even see those before. Where did they come from?
“We want to make sure you don’t get up and run away on us,” says the short skirt one, flashing him a smile like she just told a joke. It’s not funny. Where in the world would he get up and run to? Someone should talk some sense into her. It’s not right to show that much skin to people.
“Papa, I’ll ride to the home with you.” He can feel a terror rising up; it’s like a flood from somewhere . . . somewhere he doesn’t want to remember now. But he does suddenly remember the chair woman. She helped me up once when I fell in the yard. She and my wife. Where is my wife?
The one who pushed him first is talking again. “We want to help you, Bob. We don’t want you to get hurt. But we can only help you if you help us. Cooperate with us. Rosalie says you’ve had a couple of falls. We don’t want that to happen again. That’s why we have to have the straps on. So you don’t fall.” The man glances at the others now, and Robert Thompson is not won by the smug look on his face. Robert has seen that look before, but he can’t place where.
“Bob, we’re going to take you to Sunset Acres now.”
Mr. Robert Thompson looks at the assembled faces. One he thinks he might know. One who’s been sitting in his favorite chair all evening long, though he’s been too polite to point it out to her. One in a disgraceful little skirt. The man who pushed him down. The one who helped him do it. White coats, short skirt, plaid shirt, pink blouse. All kinds of people. Men, women, white, brown. But she’s not there.
They surround him, smiling, staring. One calls him Papa, one calls him Mr. Thompson, three call him Bob. But she’s not here. The strong, warm woman who makes him milkshakes and calls him Baby and tells him where to hang up the phone and where to pee and helps him put his feet up when he is tired. She is not here.
“Bob, you’re coming with us now, okay?” Then, in a moment like lightning, he knows exactly who these people are. He’s been expecting them. He’s been expecting them for some time. He’s surprised it’s taken them so long to get there. Poor Anna. I’ve really worn her out. Of course she needs a rest.
“Well,” he says, looking steadily, solemnly around the circle. “I guess I don’t have much choice now, do I?” He leans forward against the restraining straps. Instinctively, they all close in a bit.
Every one of them could stand a lesson in manners. “Get me my hat, please,” adds Robert Thompson. “If you don’t mind.”