Authors: Julia Keller
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To John L. Phillips, U.S. Air Force veteran, and to Elaine H. Phillips, the light of many lives
The thin grey line of a road, winding across the plain and up and down hills, was the fixed materialization of human longing, and of the human notion that it is better to be in one place than another.
She lurched across the table at the old man, grabbing the collar of his shirt and coming up with a crinkled fistful of blue polyester. She was out of control, and she knew it. It was totally inappropriateâshe knew that, tooâbut she could not stop herself. The sight of his face enraged her: The heavy-lidded, half-closed eyes, as if he couldn't be bothered to open them wider to make sure it was really
he was looking at, and not some random stranger. The saggy chin. The unstrung mouth. The ridiculous ears. The flaky-pink forehead, flat as a landing strip.
she thought, seconds before accosting him.
I can't stand it that he justâhe just
And so she had bolted forward, launching herself across the little round table, knocking off the game-ready checkerboard somebody had left there. The red and black plastic coins bounced soundlessly across the carpet. The old man did not flinch. He let her snatch his collar and tug him toward her, until their faces were so close that she could smell his sour, yeasty, old-man smell.
“Say it,” she said. Her voice was breathy and wet, as ragged and sopping and lost as something left out in the rain overnight. It had a rasp to it as well, a rasp of desperation. “Say you're sorry. Say it.
He blinked at her. If he felt any discomfort from the force of her grip, or any recognition of who she was, he did not show it. He had no fear of her. No fear of anything. He'd forgotten fear, just as he'd forgotten everything else.
It was infuriating, but there it was.
Then, all at once, her equilibrium returned to her. The madnessâthe madness that had her in its grip, just as surely as she had a hunk of blue polyester in hersâpassed.
Janie let go, opening her hand and releasing the fabric, which meant she released him, too. She was appalled by what she had done, ashamed that she had lost track of herself that way. She had promised herself that she would never do it againânever touch him in anger, never give them any excuse to say she could not come back. She needed to come back. He was her touchstone.
She despised him, of course, but he was her past. And she was his.
She took a quick, nervous look around the visitors lounge, to make sure it was still empty and no one had seen her. Sometimes other residents slipped in, silent as fog, and drifted into the corners. Or an aide, taking a break, might come in to take advantage of a comfortable armchair. You were never alone in this place. That was one of its chief horrors.
Her father's smile held steady. He had smiled when she first sat down here with him, and the nature of his smileâimpersonal, abstractâdid not change, even after she said, “It's Janie, Dad. Do you know who I am?” His smile had already lasted too long to be anything but an automatic response to stimuli, like an amoeba going from a comma to a period in reaction to light.
She endured that smile as long as she could. Today's limit turned out to be a bit less than five minutes. At that point she had lunged, grabbed his collar, confronted him, and then recovered herself.
She let her shoulders relax against the back of the chair. She looked around again. It was fine; no one had seen her. Good thing. This time, they would probably press charges. She had been warned.
Funny, she thought. Parents can beat the crap out of their kids as often as they like, but lay a hand on a geezer these days and they slam you for elder abuse. She chalked it up to the private-public thing. Kids were locked away in their parents' homes, with no witnesses and no one the wiser; old people were mostly penned up in public facilities, where nosy bureaucrats were always watching, writing things down.
“You bastard,” she repeated. Softly this time. There was no anger in her voice anymore. Only weariness. It was a bland statement of fact, not an accusation.
His smile stayed put. Once it established a beachhead on his face, it rarely gave up any ground. The smile was unrelated to pleasure or amusement or even interest in what was going on around him. It just was.
“You bastard,” she said for the third time.
She would have no satisfaction from him, no outraged denials, no savage counterclaims. None of the things that, if this were ten, twenty years ago, she might have had.
Janie Ferris knew this was a fool's errand. She had known it before she left her house early that morning, before she had made the three-hour drive to Muth County, West Virginia, before she parked in the lot attached to Thornapple Terrace, before she paused at the sign in front of the facility, the cheerful white wooden one with the bright green letters assuring her that the place offered M
âtricky euphemism, that. She had the same thought each time she came here, the same grudging respect for words that obscured grim realities.
She had known it before she opened the front door and checked in at the circular reception desk, asking to see Bill Ferris.
“Bill Ferris,” the woman at the desk had repeated back to her, making sure she had it exactly right.
“Yes,” Janie said. “That's it.”
“Yes,” the woman said.
This repeating thingâwas it, Janie wondered, some kind of tic? Some sort of aphasia? Or maybe it just automatically happened to you when you worked at a reception desk in a place like this, a place with no hope, a place where time had essentially stopped. Why bother coming up with an original reply? You probably got used to echoing whatever people said to you. They said, “Good morning” and you said, “Good morning” back. No more, no less. They said something, and you repeated it.
Janie had lost touch with her father for many years. The need to find him and talk to him had come upon her suddenly about six months ago; it was like a mysterious ache that just shows up one morning. You start to Google symptoms, book a specialist, and then you think:
No, I'll take care of this myself, with vitamins and exercise.
The receptionist turned away. She had to stretch to her right, to the far corner of the desk, poking out a stubby arm to fetch the clipboard on which the residents were listed in alphabetical order. Bill Ferris had been here two years now. The regular receptionist, a woman named Dorothy, never had to check. This woman was new, or maybe she was just a substitute, which is why she had to look at the list.
Had Dorothy been on duty, Janie would never have been alone with her father in the visitors lounge today. Dorothy would have called someone from security or from the nursing staff to sit with them.
That was the rule. Everyone had signed off on itâthe executive director, Bonita Layman; the head of security and maintenance, Mike Ford; the sheriff's deputy who had responded to the call that other afternoon, Clifford Wilkins; and Janie.
Because of what had happened two months ago, because of “the incident,” as they insisted on referring to it still, Janie was not supposed to be alone with him when she visited. She had signed an agreement to that effect. If she had not signed it, they were going to press assault charges against her.
But today's receptionist, a hefty woman whose name tag said HELLO
M SHERRY, didn't know Janie. She didn't blink or frown when Janie gave her the name of the person she was here to see.
M SHERRY simply repeated the name, and then reached for the clipboard on the far side of the desk.
When she leaned that way, the fabric under the arm of her pink smock pulled and bunched unbecomingly. Janie noticed things like that. The smock looked as if it had once fit but now did notâowing, no doubt, to the steady expansion of the woman's body, a thing, Janie knew, that happened in middle age to everyone. Except her. She had been very thin as a child, alarmingly thin, and even thinner as a teenager, when a cardboard cradle of fries and a can of Mountain Dewâbought for her by her boyfriend, Kenny Huffmanâoften constituted her entire food intake for three or four days at a stretch. She had been thin throughout her twenties and her thirties and forties and now into her fifties. Her body was not like other women's bodies. People thought she was lucky, but they were wrong. Her body never quite seemed to get the knack of absorbing nutrients. It was as if the very idea of sustenanceâthe taking in of nourishment to prolong lifeâwas strange and hateful. Sometimes she wondered why she was even still here at all. She had never really reconciled herself to the idea of existing.
She blamed him for that.
She blamed him for everything.
She had driven here today knowing full well that no matter what she said, he would not react. He would just sit there looking placid and content, as he always did. She could scream, she could pound the table with her fists, she could shout accusations, she could roll up the sleeves of her blouse and show him the scars on her arms from the times when he had put out cigarettes on her skin after she had
to talk back to him, after she had
to stand up for herself and for Nelson, her little brotherâand it would not matter.
Not one bit.
He would smile. He would blink. He would cross his legs at the knee. He would fold his hands and place them in his lap. He would look at her and say, “Hello there, sweet thing”âand you might think she'd be flattered, touched, maybe even nudged toward some tentative form of forgiveness, but the truth was that he said that to everyone he encountered, all day long, from the nurses to the housekeeper to the receptionist. The phrase had no meaning.
Nothing he said had any meaning.
She had made the trip again, knowing that, again, she would get no satisfaction. Knowing that, again, she would leave here frustrated. She came at least twice a month. Sometimes three or four times. Perverse as it sounded, the more remote the possibility that he would ever respond, would ever remember what he had done to her and to Nelson, the more she craved a response from him. Apology or excuse or justification or rationalization or ridicule or threatâwhatever. She did not care. She wouldn't even care if he denied the whole thing. She wouldn't mind if he called her a crazy bitch and told her to get a life. She would take it.