It was the fourth Sunday of the month. Wayne Gumbert parked in the visitors’ lot but left the engine running. He wanted to hear the rest of the song on the radio. He lit a cigarette and drummed his fingers absently on the steering wheel. When the song was over he killed the engine and smoked in silence. He snubbed out the butt in the ashtray and reached for the Sunday paper on the passenger seat. He read the sports pages from front to back. He did the same with the comics, the want ads, and the women’s section. When the paper began rattling in his hands he realized he was shivering and that his feet had grown numb with cold.
With a heavy sigh he climbed from the car and trudged up the sidewalk to the front entrance. The automatic double doors swung open and a rush of warm, stale air fled past him into the frigid afternoon sky.
The lobby was deserted save for one dapper old gentleman parked in a wheelchair by the windows. He looked up expectantly as Wayne entered the lobby, then turned away in disappointment and resumed his vigil.
There was no attendant at the front desk. Wayne stopped there anyway and reached for the log. February 28. Even the shortest month of the year had four Sundays. He wrote his name in large, precise block letters. He wanted to be sure he got credit for this. He looked at his watch. It was 1:45. Under sign-in time he wrote 12:30.
He rode the elevator up to the third floor and followed the arrows to the Alzheimer’s care unit. At the entrance to the wing he stopped at the nurse’s station. A young aide looked up from her magazine. “Hello.”
“Hi. I’m here to see my mother. Mrs. Gumbert.”
“Sure, you can go on back.”
“I thought I might take her out today. Maybe for a drive.”
“That’s fine. Just buzz us if you need any help.”
He started down the long corridor. From the open doors on either side came the sound of muted televisions. Of the forced cheerfulness of chattering visitors. Of eerie silences.
The scent of lunch still hung in the air. It was a pleasing, almost home-cooked aroma. And despite the dense concentration of mostly incontinent old people, the unit lacked the usual pungent old people smell. For this Wayne was eternally grateful. The facilities here were top-of-the-line. His three brothers had insisted on that.
He knocked softly on her half-open door and stepped into the room. She was seated upright in bed, gazing at the television. Her arms were secured by loose straps to the rails of the bed. At the sound of his voice she looked up without recognition.
“Hi, mom. How are you?” He stepped to the bed and gave her a kiss on the forehead. Her hair smelled of chemicals.
“Judy Reese is getting married today.”
“Is she? It’s me. Wayne. How are you feeling?”
“She’s only 19. Her mother is mortified.”
“I thought we could go for a drive today. Would you like that?”
“Maybe out in the country?”
“Poor, poor Helen.”
He sighed and sat in the chair by the window. Judy Reese had been a neighbor when he was growing up. She had indeed married at 19. Twenty-four years ago.
“Mom, I had a card from Charlie this week–from Okinawa. That’s in Japan.”
“That Jamison boy is nothing but trouble.”
“He’ll be home on leave next month. I know he’ll want to see you.”
“Violet Schramm heard he’d been arrested in Ohio for drugs.”
“He’s already enlisted for another tour. He wants to go through officer’s training.”
“Judy is just breaking her mother’s heart.”
“He wants to serve on an aircraft carrier.”
Wayne resisted the urge to argue. Judy Reese was still happily married to the Jamison boy. They lived in a large house in the nice part of town and had produced three adorable grandchildren for poor Helen. To confront her with contradictory facts only served to muffle her into confused, lip-biting silence.
At some point during his visit, for an hour, a few minutes, a fleeting moment, the faltering bulb of remembrance would suddenly click on and he would cease to be a stranger sitting beside her bed. These periods of illumination had lately become less frequent, less luminous as the disease progressed.
The key, as the doctor and his brothers constantly reiterated, was to keep talking to her. Wayne did his best to hold up his end of the parallel conversation. He told her about the big sale this week at Sears, where he sold appliances. She reminisced about the bicycle she’d had as a girl on the farm. He compared the virtues of the new Kenmore side-by-side refrigerator to those of the Maytag model. She told the old story of the time she’d fallen from the hayloft and broken her arm.
The problem was that Wayne always ran out of things to say. “You don’t know how to communicate,” his ex-wife Margie had ragged him. “You should try it,” he thought, lapsing into bitter silence at her memory. His moodiness seemed to rub off on his mother, who settled into her own withdrawn silence. He looked at his watch. He’d been here 15 minutes.
He pressed the buzzer and soon Rita, one of the regular aides, popped her head in the door. She was a garrulous but efficient woman who spoke to his mother in the voice of a doting nanny. “Going out today, are we? Let’s get you untied then. She got a little agitated at lunch today so we had to use the restraints,” she added. He’d noticed a few stray kernels of corn on the floor and a smear of what looked like cherry cobbler on her gown.
While Rita got his mother dressed he went back downstairs to sign out a wheelchair. When he returned his mother was standing by the window. She turned to face him. She was wearing corduroys and a familiar sweater. Her hair was neatly fixed and the puckered wrinkles around her mouth seemed to have been ironed away. For a moment he recognized her as the woman she’d once been.
“Wayne, it’s good to see you.”
“Uh, she couldn’t make it today. Sorry.”
“Is the baby OK?”
“He’s doing great. How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m fine. You know me.”
And she knew him. Circa 1983, but that was all right. It had been a happy time for her. He wanted to walk over and give her a hug while the moment lasted, but Rita stepped between them. She was beaming idiotically, as though somehow responsible for the transformation.
“Isn’t she lovely today? Mrs. Gumbert came and gave her that perm just yesterday. Didn’t she?”
“You look great, mom.”
They eased her into her down jacket and lowered her into the wheelchair. Wayne draped a blanket over her knees and steered her into the hallway.
In the elevator he caught another whiff of the chemicals her hair emitted. Standing behind her, he reached out and gently stroked her hair with his fingertips. It felt stiff as an uncleaned paintbrush. Her scalp looked pink and tender beneath the tight gray ringlets. He wondered which of his sisters-in-law had done the job.
In the lobby the same man sat gazing out the window. When he turned to Wayne now it was with a lost, imploring look. Wayne felt a pang of sympathy. He wished there were something comforting, something lighthearted he could say to the old man to reassure him. But he couldn’t think of anything. It wasn’t something he was good at.
He pushed his mother out the double doors and down the walk to the parking lot. He helped her into the front seat and stowed the wheelchair in the trunk.
“Are you warm enough? Do you want the blanket?”
“Where are you taking me?”
“For a drive, mom. How does that sound? Or we could just go back to my place if you want.” She made no answer. He started the car.
Margie had divorced Wayne nine years ago, about the same time his mother had finally moved out of the old family home into an apartment. The Sunday drive had soon become one of their routines. The other three Sundays a month she spent in the company of one or more of his brothers, their bubbly wives, and a horde of grandchildren. Their lives were a whirlwind of first communions, birthday parties, and barbecues. She’d often confided to Wayne, in the years before she lost her capacity for it, how tiring those Sundays were and how she relished the prospect of a nice quiet day with him instead. He hadn’t bought it for a second but had appreciated her saying it all the same.
He pulled out of the lot and headed into town. The passing scenery, the renovated and decaying buildings, the familiar landmarks all provided conversation points. “Look at the corner there. They tore down the old bank. They’re putting up another Walgreens.”
“Hmm.” She looked from side to side, following his pointing finger. He couldn’t tell if any of this was registering with her today.
The first stop on the drive was always a visit to the old homestead on the south end of town. Wayne turned onto Spring Drive and pulled to a stop in front of a modest ranch house in the middle of the block. When Wayne was growing up, this had been the last street before the town gave way to farmland. Now a vast warehouse loomed in the background. The house’s current owners had enclosed the backyard with a six-foot-high chain-link fence. Three ceaselessly barking Dobermans circled the perimeter on a well-worn muddy path. The large maple tree in the front yard had been cut down the previous summer. His mother’s flower beds had been overrun by weeds years ago.
“The tulips will be coming up soon.”
“I don’t think they’re the type that plants tulips, mom.”
“I wonder if Helen Reese is home.”
“They moved away a few years ago. Remember?”
“Seen enough?” He put the car in gear and drove off without waiting for an answer. He turned south on the two-lane highway and headed out of town.
An early thaw had left the ground muddy and bare, with only a few patches of dirty snow left in the sheltered corners of the fields. The lowering clouds were beginning to spit the first tentative flakes of a fresh fall.
Three miles out of town, at the top of a gradual rise, they approached the cemetery where Wayne’s father was buried. They’d spent many a Sunday here in the days before her illness, placing fresh flowers on the grave, pulling weeds and brushing the bird droppings from his headstone. Wayne slowed and watched his mother from the corner of his eye. Her gaze was fixed on the rows of graves behind the wrought iron fence. She turned to him, her face uncertain, opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. She turned and looked again at the graveyard.
“Where are you taking me?”
Wayne bit his lip and drove on. The snow was falling harder now and he switched on the wipers. He turned on the radio, listened for a moment, then shut it off guiltily.
“Should we stop and see if the Mackeys are home?”
“The egg people?”
“Right, the egg people.”
“I wonder if they know your father died.”
For Wayne this was the most maddening aspect of the disease. The ever-shifting passage from confusion to clarity, between remembering and not remembering, with unscheduled stops at all points in between. “She’s like a time traveler who can’t control the time machine,” as Charlie had put it after his last visit. Wayne often felt it would be easier to bear if the door to the past had simply been slammed shut and sealed, than to contend with the constant openings and closings, the drafts and leaks of lucidity.
He turned east on a narrow county road bordered on each side by farmland. Two miles later he pulled into a gravel drive that led up to a white two-story farmhouse. Behind the house stood a weathered barn, a silo, an aluminum equipment shed, and a long, low ramshackle henhouse.
Some of Wayne’s earliest memories were of this farm. Once a week his mother had made the 15-mile round trip out here to buy eggs. Wayne’s father had eaten bacon and eggs for breakfast seven days a week. His mother, raised on a farm herself, had insisted that the eggs here were fresher and healthier than those sold two blocks from their house at the A&P. Wayne’s father had dropped dead of a massive heart attack at the age of 54. If she ever felt a stab of guilt or sensed the irony, his mother never let on.
Mrs. Mackey, the farmer’s wife, had remained friends with Wayne’s mother even after losing her best customer. They stopped here frequently on Sundays. When his mother had grown confused and forgetful, the gracious Mrs. Mackey had continued to welcome them into her home. The two old women would sit in the kitchen or on the porch chatting and sipping lemonade, while Wayne, just as he had as a child, would wander about the barnyard, sneezing from the hay and getting cow manure stuck to his shoes.
He stepped onto the porch and rapped on the screen door. He circled around the house and tried the back door. He tiptoed through the slush and mud out to the barn. Nobody was around. Disappointed, feeling slightly betrayed, he climbed back in the car.
“Guess nobody’s home.”
“The tulips will be coming up soon.”
“Yeah, they sure will.”
Wayne sat with his hands on the steering wheel, uncertain what his next step should be. The snow was coming down steadily and the afternoon was growing darker. It would probably make the most sense to get her back in case the roads got bad. Would it make the slightest difference to her one way or the other?
“I think we’d better head back. Is that OK? Is there anyplace else you wanted to stop?”
“I need a new purse.”
“A new purse?”
“To go with my blue dress.”
Wayne headed back to town, sure that by the time they’d gone a mile she would have completely forgotten about the purse. But the notion stayed fixed in her mind. As he approached the exit for the bypass without slowing she spoke up anxiously. “Aren’t we going to the mall?”
“Sure.” Wayne slowed and merged into the line of cars making the turnoff. Traffic on the bypass was heavy and moving slow in the worsening weather. At the mall he turned in at the south entrance and parked in a handicapped spot directly in front of JC Penney. He wheeled his mother inside, brushed the snow from her hair, and unzipped her heavy coat.
They had entered on the lower level near the jewelry department. He steered her toward women’s clothing, where he guessed the purses would be. Passing by a full-length mirror, he caught a glimpse of the two of them. His mother was hunched forward and nearly lost from sight amid the bulk of her coat. Pushing her was a balding, overweight, middle-aged schlub with an utterly miserable expression on his face. This unflattering image of himself didn’t jibe with that of the devoted son he hoped he projected. To compensate he stood up straighter, forced a smile onto his face, and struck up a cheerful monologue. “Look, they’ve got the spring fashions out already. They really rush the seasons, don’t they? It’ll be Easter before you know it.”
He pulled to a stop beside a rack of purses. “What color do you think? How ’bout this one?” He took down a purse and placed it in her hands. She stared at it for a moment, then let it fall listlessly into her lap. “No? This one?” He felt like he was at work, striving to win over an indifferent customer on a new dishwasher. Struggling to keep the desperation from creeping into his voice. “This would be perfect with your blue dress.”
But the light seemed to have gone out of her eyes, and she held the purse like she had no idea what it was. He thought of buying her one anyway, but there really didn’t seem any point in it. He wasn’t sure she even owned a blue dress anymore. He hung the purses back on the rack and pushed her aimlessly through the aisles.
A saleswoman on break walked by eating french fries from a fast-food bag. Wayne could feel his own stomach grumbling. “Are you hungry, mom? Should we get something to eat?”
“I’d like some chop suey.”
He pushed her out the entrance that led into the mall. Before them two levels stretched out in a straight line for 150 yards, anchored at the far end by the Sears where Wayne worked. In between lay 126 shops and stores and restaurants. Wayne had worked at Sears for 16 years and had barely set foot in any of them.
The mall was crowded today. Packs of giggling teenagers walking four and five abreast grudgingly parted to let them pass. He had to maneuver her around a roped-off section where water leaking from a skylight high above was collecting in overflowing buckets.
Halfway between Penney’s and Sears was the food court. Normally he packed a lunch and avoided this area like the plague. The unnatural blend of aromas–cinnamon buns, Mexican spice, Italian sauce, American grease, coffee and cappuccino–made him nauseous. The seating area was packed. Wayne eased the chair through the throngs in the direction of Egg Roll Heaven. He sometimes brought her carryout from here. One thing she never seemed to forget was that she loved Chinese food.
The line at the counter was six deep. There looked to be only a single employee manning the place. Wayne had to lean over his mother’s shoulder to make himself heard above the din. “Do you want to wait? Should we try somewhere else?” He could see the noise and commotion were upsetting her. Her left hand was trembling and she looked frightened. He wheeled her out of the crowd, back in the direction they’d come from. He found a quiet stretch and parked her beside a bench. He sat down and awkwardly took her hands in his and rubbed them gently.
“Sorry about that. It’s just too crowded today. You’d think all these people would have something better to do on a Sunday afternoon.” She smiled wanly but was staring past him. Wayne looked up. They were seated directly opposite a candy store. “Would you like some candy? How ’bout I get us a box and then we’ll hit the road.”
He could see the candy shop was small, with narrow aisles. He set the brake on the wheelchair. “I’ll just run in myself, OK? I’m going to leave you right here where you can see me.”
He cut across the flow of traffic into the store. He quickly selected a large heart-shaped box of chocolates. Valentine’s Day had been two weeks ago and it was half price. There were two customers ahead of him at the register. He got in line and looked out into the mall at his mother. He gave her a little wave.
There was a teenage girl working the register. She was yakking into her cell phone as she rang up the man at the front of the line. “Nine eighty-five,” she said to the customer. “I know, he is so weird,” she said into her cell phone.
“It should be half price,” protested the man. “The sign says everything on that table is 50 percent off.”
“Hang on,” she said with annoyance into her phone. She came out from behind the counter to check the sales tag. Wayne rolled his eyes and shifted his weight impatiently. Who hired these people?
He looked out again to his mother. She seemed calm now and content observing the passersby. As he turned back to the register he caught sight, from the corner of his eye, of what looked like a falling raindrop. It looked as if it had struck his mother on the shoulder. Jesus. Now what? He watched unblinking for a few seconds and the same thing happened again. This time the drop landed squarely on the top of her head. On her new perm. The freaking roof was leaking directly onto his mother.
The salesgirl was back behind the register now and had resumed her phone conversation. She poked at the keys but couldn’t figure out how to re-ring the sale.
“Can’t you just void it out?” asked the customer.
“Hang on,” she said into her phone.
Wayne was getting pissed. He dealt with the public every day at work, and nothing annoyed him more than shoddy service. He was trying to think of something clever to say to her, some disparaging remark to put her in her place. Meanwhile, the woman in front of Wayne gave an exasperated groan, dumped her candy on the counter, and stomped out of the store. Wayne felt like doing the same. He should get the hell out of here and go move the wheelchair. But his mother seemed unmindful of her plight even as he watched one drop, then another really large one, land on her. And now he had thought of what to say to the salesgirl.
The cell phone cradled to her ear, she rang him up and slid his change across the counter. “There you go.”
“It’s a good thing you’re not on commission.”
She looked at him cluelessly. “What?”
“Commission.” She didn’t get it. He scooped up his change, picked up his candy, and gave her a derisive snort. “Never mind.”
He walked out of the store holding up the candy box so his mother could see it. As he entered the open area of the mall he glanced up to see if he could spot the source of the leak. Directly above his mother, on the upper level, a teenage boy leaned out over the railing and released from his mouth an enormous gob of spit. A second grinning boy leaned over to watch its flight. Wayne watched its descent through space. Even as it fell, even before it struck his mother in the lap, he felt rising up in him a blinding, vindictive rage. He made a beeline for the escalators to his right. He strode quickly up the moving steps, brushing past the stationary riders.
He reached the upper level and headed for the two punks. The second one was getting ready now. Wayne could see the churning, exaggerated motion of his jaw as he worked up a big one. He was just starting to lean out over the railing when his partner spotted Wayne approaching. He tugged at his friend’s sleeve and pointed.
The two boys froze, then started to back away.
As he advanced on them, Wayne abruptly realized he had no idea what he meant to do. Only an overwhelming desire to hurt them, to smash their moronic faces together, to stand over their curled up, cowering bodies and kick the shit out of them. When he was ten feet away the two boys turned to run.
“Hey, you little shits! Get back here!” The words came out in a harsh, ugly croak. He could sense the heads turning in his direction. One of the boys gave Wayne a mocking smile over his shoulder and flipped him the finger. Then the two of them bolted. Wayne took four or five lumbering strides after them and pulled up short. It was pointless. Their backs were already disappearing into the crowd.
He could feel the eyes of shoppers on him–a wild-eyed middle-aged man holding a heart-shaped box of candy and cursing at a couple of teenagers. He could feel the anger giving way to abashed, red-faced shame. He wanted to make them understand, to plead his case: “They were spitting on my mother down there.” Instead, with his head down, he turned and headed back to the escalators.
As he descended again to the lower level his mother came into view, seated exactly where he’d left her. The crowds strolled by indifferently. She looked tired and forlorn. Her left hand was rocking rhythmically in her lap.
Halfway down the escalator he was struck by a memory. Charlie had been eight years old. He and Wayne had spent hours carefully assembling and painting a model airplane. Charlie had proudly carried the finished product across the street where a group of neighborhood kids were playing. Wayne was puttering in the garage when he’d sensed something was wrong. He’d looked across the street. The neighbor kids had disappeared. At the foot of the driveway, huge sobs wracking his little body, the shattered pieces of the airplane in his hands, was Charlie. Never in his life had Wayne loved his son more than at that moment when he’d gone to him, thrown his arms around him and hugged him, thumbed away a tear and told him it would be all right, they would fix the plane. So it was that he felt at this moment about his mother–feeble, helpless, covered in spit. What the hell kind of a person was he?
He dabbed the saliva away with a Kleenex and tried to utter some soothing words. She seemed totally oblivious to the indignity she’d just suffered. For once Wayne was thankful for her condition.
“Ready to go?” On the way out he stopped at Penney’s again and bought her a purse. In the car he broke open the box of chocolates and placed it in her lap. She had eaten six pieces by the time they arrived back at the nursing home. In the lobby the old man was nowhere to be seen. Wayne wondered if anyone had ever come for him. His mother had a big smear of chocolate on her face. He licked his thumb and wiped it away before taking her upstairs.
Back in her room Rita helped Wayne raise her from the wheelchair and took her to the bathroom. Wayne took the chair downstairs and went outside to smoke a cigarette. When he returned Rita was gone and his mother was in bed. She had the covers pulled up to her chin and was staring out the window into the night. Wayne stepped to the window and pulled the curtains closed.
He leaned over the bed and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “I love you, mom. See you next time.”
If this were the movies, if Wayne could write the ending, she would at this moment, if only for this moment, smile at him, take his hands, and say, “I love you too. You’re a good son.” She looked at him blankly. “Judy Reese is getting married today.”
Wayne sighed and sat in the chair by the window. Five minutes later she was asleep. Sitting there watching her, he wondered if her dreams were as jumbled, as disordered, as her waking hours. Maybe there everything made perfect sense. He wanted to believe it was so.
He stood up to leave. Her new purse and the box of candy were on the dresser. He picked them up and placed them gently beside her on the bed where she would see them when she woke.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Hornschemeier.