Besides visiting Mom on weekends, I drop by once a week on my way home from work. Delayed by rush hour traffic, I arrive around six-thirty and park in the back lot. I’m surprised at the difficulty of finding a space considering that residents don’t own cars and fewer people visit on weekday evenings. Often, I’m the only visitor on Mom’s floor. It’s a mystery.
By the time I arrive, the residents have finished dinner. The staff has cleared and washed the dining room tables, vacuumed the rug, and locked the doors. This precaution became necessary after eighty-eight-year-old Mrs. Petterson wandered into the darkened room and snagged a wheel of her walker on a table leg. Impatient and unwilling to call for help, she wrenched the walker free, but lost her balance, avoiding a broken hip only by holding onto the walker for dear life. It broke her fall before rolling away. With the dining room off limits in the evening, residents either return to their rooms or sit in chairs lining the corridor chatting with friends until bedtime.
If Mom isn’t in her room, I continue down the hallway, its lights dimmed for the night. Passing each room, I say hello to those residents I’ve met. I want to be friendly, although sometimes they stare at me without recognition.
I find Mom and her friend, Kay in the communal area near the nurses’ station, holding court with other members of the ‘Hen Club,’ as they call themselves. Hard of hearing, they lean toward each other, but sitting in a single line prevents more than three women from taking part in any one conversation. A chorus of ‘What did she say?’ prompts a retelling of the story up and down the line, like the game of telephone. God knows what is said to the person at the end of the line. Male residents avoid this gauntlet of ‘hens’ like the plague.
When she sees me, Kay cackles and announces to the women, “The rooster is here, girls. Eggs tomorrow.” Everyone turns to look and I’m blushing a red bright as a rooster’s wattle. They all titter, enjoying the disruption to their nightly routine, and make room for me beside Mom.
Mom is always happy to see me. Having a visitor in the evening confers a special status on a resident, surpassed only by an evening visit from a grandchild. “My son,” Mom introduces me to the women each time I arrive. I kiss her and ask how she’s feeling and if there’s anything she needs. That’s Kay’s cue: “Yeah, you can tell us the code to get out of here.” This comment elicits no laughter and is not meant to.
Tonight, Mom is animated, full of laughter, trading jokes, a keen observer of the passing parade. She tells me about Dad’s visit that afternoon and the progress of her rehab; I tell her what Rachel and the grandchildren are up to. When I bring new snapshots of the kids, they are passed up and down the row.
Leslie expects a call after every visit. Does she look clean and healthy, are her clothes washed and pressed, do you think she’s eating enough?
I notice an old woman passing us with her walker, acting agitated and looking in every direction. Kay mutters something to my mother, who then turns to me. “That’s Mrs. Petterson. She was a bank manager at the Suffolk Franklin—in Park Square, I think—before it merged.” Mrs. Petterson continues down the corridor. Her wheels squeak on the linoleum, until she bumps over the edge of the rug in the reception area.
Mom looks over my shoulder. “Oh, oh. She’s heading back this way.” I turn around before she can warn me not to draw attention to myself. “Too late! She’s found you.”
Mrs. Petterson stops in front of me and taps my arm. “Is the vault locked for the night?”
I think she’s mistaking me for someone from the admin office where residents’ valuables are locked in a safe. “Someone can help you downstairs in admitting.” I smile and turn back to Mom.
She tugs at my sleeve. “I’m speaking about the bank vault.”
That’s when I realize she thinks I’m her employee. “I th…think it’s locked,” I stammer, trying to be serious when I want to laugh.
“You THINK?” Her voice rises with indignation. “You think it’s locked? That’s unacceptable. You must go and make sure.”
I look at the women sitting along the wall. Most are looking off into space. Mom gestures for me to leave and I stand obediently. I tell Mrs. Petterson that I’ll be back and walk around the corner to the nurses’ station.
I remember acting in college when another actor playing the role of a powerful man forgot his lines. He jumped ahead six pages to the scene where he orders me off the stage. He quickly recovered his place in the script but, given my character’s lowly status, I had no recourse but to obey him. That wouldn’t have been a problem except I had a major speech to deliver in four pages. I spent the next few minutes deciding how to slip back on stage in time to say my lines. I always wondered if the audience guessed something had gone wrong.
“Can I help you?” Helen, the evening nurse, looks up and smiles expectantly.
“I’m only here to check that the vault is locked.”
“Ah, you’ve met Mrs. Petterson.”
“Now what do I do?”
Helen laughs. “I guess you’d best check the vault.”
To kill time, I enter a sitting room and scan the romance paperbacks on a bookcase.
“Psst.” Helen pokes her head around the corner. “You’d better get back before you’re in trouble for taking too long.”
I return to my seat. “The vault is securely locked. It won’t open until ten o’clock tomorrow.”
“TEN o’clock?” Her disapproval surprises me. “The bank opens at nine! What if a customer wants to withdraw more money than we have in the tills?”
“Oh, sorry.” My tone of voice is one of sincere regret. Her piercing stare almost convinces me that I have, in fact, made a terrible mistake.
“Go back and change the timer. The password is in my top drawer. You’ve been here long enough to know better.”
I return to the nurses’ station.
Helen looks up from the drug cart. “Ah-ha, Mrs. Petterson’s employee is back again.”
“I set the vault to open at the wrong time. She’s going to fire me!”
“I hope you remember where to find the password.”
“God, I can’t remember. Where is it?” I’ve been sucked into her fantasy and almost forget there is no password and no vault to reset. She must have been a bitch to work for.
Helen reaches over and pats my back. “We appreciate your help. It’s difficult settling her down once she starts worrying about the vault.”
I take off my glasses and rub my eyes. My stomach growls. I haven’t eaten since noon.
“You can go back now.” Helen shoos me away. “Adjusting the timer doesn’t take long.”
“She must have been a tough boss.”
Helen nods. “She had to be in those days to rise as high as she did.”
Returning to my seat, I explain to Mrs. Peterson that the timer has been reset to nine o’clock.
Satisfied, she pushes off with her walker, clattering down the corridor. At her bedroom door, she catches a wheel on the door jamb. She yanks the walker away and enters her room.
The ladies around me laugh softly. Kay leans over. “You’re lucky you still have a job. Next time you’ll remember: the vault opens at nine.”
“My boy’s a smart one,” Mom says proudly. “He’ll remember.”
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