is sitting on the bench with her back upright against the wall next to an automatic glass door, alone in a room full of strangers. Resting in her lap is a small tan purse with gold latches. A crochet shawl like an oversized doily draping her shoulders is pinned below her neck with a cameo etched in plastic. Her fingers tap on the purse with gold fingernails that match the purse clips. The white laminate floors and ash walls draw a faint gleam under the cruel florescent lighting from her tan Hush Puppies and sea-foam green outfit.
She turned her wrist to check her watch, a thin gold trinket about to be enveloped by liver spots. Her fingertips glided over a few of them, then she opened her purse for a moist towelette. She had some difficulty opening the small paper package but eventually pulled out the cloth, which reeked of astringent, and started rubbing at the brown spots. The spots endured, so she gave up, gripping the cloth in her hand while she checked the time again.
After a few moments, a man in white scrubs pushed an older gentleman in a wheelchair through the glass door, which parted on its own. The man in the wheelchair stared somewhere ahead of him at nothing in particular.
"Excuse me, sir," Elise said, flagging the man in white with her bony, spotted hands. "Did you happen to see the bingo hall van on your way in? It is now five minutes late and if Im not there soon theyll give away my yellow daubers."
A corner of the mans mouth raised slightly and his eyes went from wonder to a look of forced compassion. He looked at a clock on the wall above her head. It was just after 4 p.m.
"Sorry, but that van only comes on Thursdays. Today is Tuesday."
The man smiled and continued his route, pushing the man in the wheelchair as he continued to stare ahead at nothing in particular.
"Oh, dear me," she said. "Sorry to have troubled you."
He looked back at her.
"Its okay, Elsie."
Elsies eyes opened wide at the sound of her name and her knuckles went flush as she gripped the cloth. She snapped her eyes down to her lap, where she started to fidget with the gold buckles on her purse. After the man turned a corner down the hall, she checked her blouse for a nametag, an indication, something. But she found nothing. She lifted her gaze, her eyes darting from one stranger to the next in the room, suspicious of some mutual understanding of who she was.
She turned her body to face the door and continued to wait as the sun slid downward against the curve of the earth. The lights seemed to grow brighter inside as it approached eight oclock and her worries shifted from being late to missing bingo altogether. Her watch beeped twice and she glanced to check the time. Those in the bingo hall would be getting on the van home now. She waited for the van to return, determined to have words with the driver. But the van never came.
She glanced in the direction of a robust laughter at the end of a nearby hallway and saw the man who knew her name. He was walking her direction with an empty wheelchair and said something to a woman behind a counter with a clipboard in hand, signaling the womans attention to Elsie with his thumb.
The man walked toward her in wraith-like silence behind the empty wheelchair. It emitted a rhythmic twitter as its wheels churned against the linoleum. The rhythm pounded closer, getting louder and stronger as it neared. Elsie took a deep breath and put a hand to her chest, unsure if it would contain her pounding heart.
The noise stopped and she could sense the mans gaze on her.
"May I take you to your room Elsie?" the man asked.
"My room? You must be mistaken, Im not staying here."
"But Elsie, you live here."
"I do not," she said matter-of-factly. "Wheres a phone? I want to call my son. Hell come pick me up."
The man pulled a cordless phone free from his belt and handed it to her. She turned it on and held it to her ear, waiting for a dial tone. When the tone came she lowered it to tap in a set of numbers. However, her finger wavered above the keypad, skeptic of where to begin.
"Would you like me to get the number for you, Miss. Felton?"
"Its Mrs. and it would offend my husband if you continue to call me otherwise."
"Would you like me to get the number?" The man held out his hand for the phone. She gave it over and he scrolled through a pre-programmed list. He stopped at one and hit the dial button, then handed it back to Elsie.
The phone at the other end of the line rang for a moment. A man answered.
Elsie paused to hear an intercom that sounded through the hallways, booming a shrewd hum of gibberish.
"Uhcan I help you?" The voice sounded accusing.
Her eyes adopted a surprised look and fell to the floor. "Can you help me with what?"
"Mother, is that you?"
"Mother!? Who is this and why did you call me?"
"Mother, is everything all right?"
"How did you get this number? Whatever youre trying to sell I dont want it. Take me off your call list or Ill report you."
Elsie turned off the phone and handed it over to the man. He clipped it back on to his belt and gripped the handles on the wheelchair.
"Cmon, sit," he said, while signaling toward the chair. "Ill take you to your room."
"I can walk, thank you."
"Suit yourself. Follow me." The man pushed the wheelchair again, its twitter booming over his dreary footsteps. He walked down the barren hallway, popping a wheelie with the chair. She followed closely. A phone rang from a nearby receptionist desk that glowed from a single bankers lamp. A dark heavyset woman answered and after a moment looked up at Elsie.
"Yes, she doing just fine," the woman said, keeping her eyes on Elsie as she spoke. "Mmm-hmm she goin to bed right now. Thank you. You call again any time, punkin. Buh-bye now."
The man led her through the maze of hallways to the doorway of her room. Elsie stopped just inside and turned to face him. He stood with a detached smile.
"I dont like this hotel," Elsie said.
"Is there something wrong?"
"I just dont like it. How much do I owe you?"
She started to fumble through her purse, scooping aside makeup, jewelry and a box of Tic Tacs. The man put his hand over hers to end her stirring. His hand was soft, thin, and free of the filthy brown spots.
"Its on the house," he said. "Good night, Mrs. Felton."
"Good night, sir."
Elsie turned her back to the door and took a couple steps into the room, scanning portraits on walls. She heard a click behind her and turned to grip the doorknob.
It was locked.
Elsie walked from her bedroom to the living room, which was lit up by the glisten of China dishes and Depression glass, cradling an armful of clothes she hadnt worn in years. A few random sleeves and polyester pant legs dangled from the heap.
"Mother, we dont need that much. Just a few outfits will do," Chris said. He spoke, as always, with a dry, monotone flavor.
Elsie dropped the clothes on a nearby couch and a shirt slinked to the floor. She watched the pile for a moment, then looked at her watch and patted her pants pockets. Her eyes widened and began to dart across her living room, scanning cluttered countertops.
"Its time for my Tic Tacs. Have you seen my Tic Tacs? I think theyre in the kitchen."
Chris watched as his mother walked to a hall closet and opened the door.
"Jacob, have you seen my Tic Tacs? I think theyre in the kitchen."
Jacob sat in his fathers old recliner flipping through a brochure.
"Dont think so, Ma."
Chris took a small clear box from his mothers purse as she started to walk across the living room and handed it to her. She took it and stopped short of the doorway to look at the open suitcase.
"Oh thank you, but"
"Why are you packing my clothes, dear?"
"Mother, for the last time, were going to the home."
"Oh. But I am home."
"The nursing home, mother." Chris put a pair of socks in the suitcase and looked behind him to the recliner. "Jacob," he said, his voice sharper than before, "what does it say about crochet needles?"
"Im not going anywhere," Elsie said. "Im fine right here." She popped open the small plastic case and tipped it until a couple of the mints fell free into her palm.
Chris exhaled and gripped the sides of the suitcase. His eyes took on a glimmer and he bowed his head to hide his face.
"I cant go to one of those places. It will be a horrid nightmare!" She cupped her hand and catapulted the mints into her mouth. She swallowed hard and snapped the container shut.
"Nah, youll be fine, Ma," said Jacob. He had a tendency to drawl his speech so it sounded like one long, slow word. "Look, it says right here; home away from home. Nothing about crochet needles, though."
"Oh? Let me see that." Jacob shot his arm in the air with the brochure in hand. Elsie plucked it from his fingers and squinted as if trying to read. "Hmmm. Sounds like a scam to me."
"Its not a scam," Chris snapped. "Its the finest in the state, Mother." He tossed a set of crochet needles into the case. They clinked together atop the socks he had just thrown in. He closed the suitcase and latched it shut.
"I dont know about that," Jacob said. "I personally would be freaked out in a room full of geezers with crochet needles eyeing me like a piece of meat."
"Shut up!" Chris fumed and turned to bear a red face. Elsie gasped and touched her fingers to her collarbone. Jacobs head fell limp to the back of the recliner. A few locks of his blond hair stirred in the collision. "Youve been about as helpful as the goddamn disease has. If you wouldve helped out once in a while we wouldnt be doing this!"
Chris jerked the suitcase upward and dropped it in Jacobs lap with a thud. "Why dont you make yourself useful for a change and go put this in my car?"
Jacob looked over to Elsie, who stared at the ground while gripping the small box in her hand. It rattled somewhat as her arm started to shake. He took the suitcase by the handle, which squeaked slightly when rotated, and stood from the recliner. He was a full head taller than Chris wasjust like their father.
"Sir. Yes sir."
Jacob left out the front door and the screen whinnied before it shut with a clap.
"Oh dear," said Elsie. "You two mustnt fight like that. Do you hear me? Its just poor manners."
"Yes, mother," Chris droned. "I hear."
"Thank you, Jacob. I always thought of you as the better one of you boys. Never forget that."
It had been nearly a month since Elsie was enrolled and a few weeks since Chris last visited. But still, the director seemed to recognize Chris at the front desk and flashed him a smile that bumped his square-framed glasses down a tad. He pressed them back up with a thick finger.
"Howdy, Mr. Felton," he said. The director had a throaty, Limbaugh-ish voice that gurgled when he spoke. "Good to see you back so soon."
"Yes, well I" Chris started to say something but was interrupted by a faint crashing noise like dishes breaking in the background. Two large men in white scrubs swished around a nearby hallway and headed toward the commotion. The director slid his hand across Chriss back to a shoulder and gripped it firmly while standing at his side.
"No worries. Some of the folks have problems handling objects. Happens all the time." He gripped Chriss shoulder and shook him violently. "So, whats with this untimely visit? No, no. Just kiddingreally. We like to liven things up here if you know what I mean."
"Just here to see my mother."
"Ah, yes. I see. Room 406. Come on, Ill walk you."
"Thanks. Hows she holding out?"
"Doing just fine," he said, patting Chris on the shoulder blade. "Dont worry, Mr. Felton, you made yourself the right choice. Her condition is just too much for a man to handle alone."
Their shoes clopped as they walked together, slightly off beat, down the laminate hallway. The door was open when they reached Elsies room. She sat on her bed looking out a small window with her purse in her lap. The intercom paged the director to the dining area.
"Whoop. Ive got to go. Dont leave without saying good-bye, okee-doke?"
"Yeah." The director walked off and Chris turned to the room. "Hello, mother."
She was dressed up as if ready to go somewhere with purse in one hand and a dry towelette in the other. Rays of sun bled through the salmon-colored drapes from the afternoon sky, setting her hair aglow.
"Oh, hello," she said, smiling. "It is so nice that you stopped by." Though she offered him the benefit of the doubt, she still looked puzzled about who stood before her. Chris shook it off and looked at the walls, which were covered in a faint ivy print.
The walls were busy with pictures framed in black, which he hung during his last visit. Some were portraits of him and of Jacob, others were of his father and of her. A few unframed photos with all of them together were taped to a bedside stand.
"Oh, yes," said Elsie as she stood from the bed. "They look like wonderful, happy people, dont they? Youre a dead ringer for the one in the middle there."
She pointed at an old picture of Chrisbefore he started to go bald and gained weight.
Chris jutted his lower lip and nodded. Then he took a pad of Post-It notes and a ballpoint pen from his sport coat and started writing. He peeled the first note and stuck it to Jacobs photo on the wall. It read, "Jacob." He posted on the rest of the pictures with a name on each "Chris." "Papa." "Elsie." Elsie watched in silence, wearing a smile the whole time and keeping a hand over her purse. When finished, Chris put the pen back in his sport coat and tossed the rest of the pad on the nightstand. It landed with a faint clap, rustling a flurry of dead skin particles.
Chris exhaled audibly, then asked, "So, are they treating you well here?"
She opened her mouth several times as if to say something, but couldnt find the words.
"Well, the man you came here with" she started, first looking at the floor, then looking back to Chriss eyes and shaking her head, "Hes not who he says he is."
"Shhh!" Elsie peered around Chriss shoulder to see if anyone was in the doorway. Then she continued in a whisper. "The gatekeeper."
She began to fumble in her purse for a Tic-Tac and pulled out a box full of them. She held the box near her mouth like a chipmunk, fumbling to get a mint to launch into her mouth.
"This isnt really a hotel, you know. They just want you to believe it. But you cant stay here." She paused and pointed at the doorknob. "Theyll lock you up."
Chris slipped his hands in his pockets and looked out the glowing window behind her.
Chris and Elsie dont talk any more on the way to the bingo hall about the Great Depression or when he and Jacob were kids. Elsie stares out the window in silence, watching street signs from the back seat as each approaches the car and drifts inevitably behind them.
"The bingo hall is on the next block, driver," Elsie said, pointing from the back seat.
He eventually stopped the car and Elsie offered him a quarter. He refused and walked her to the front door. Once inside, the pungent odor of mothballs and cat piss choked Chris nostrils.
He found two seats and watched as Elsie smiled, squinting to see the numbers on a giant light board above the sea of white and purple-haired bingo players.
Chris noticed a woman beside him who had huge glasses reined in by a gold chain that wrapped behind her neck. She held a dauber in each hand and raced them across a spread of bingo cards each time a number was called, stabbing at nearly every one. She looked up, her neck shaking like a bobble doll, and caught him staring.
"Can I help you with something, mister?" Her words fell sharpa hazard to her eyeballs, which seemed to bulge from her skull behind the glasses as if ready to burst at any moment.
He shook his head and turned his attention back to the light board. The bingo chieftain shouted gibberish. His assistanta flabby-limbed Vanna White plus 50 yearswaved the bingo ball franticly at the light board, sending ripples up her arms.
im, slightly rattling the half-empty box of Tic-Tacs in his shirt pocket. He took the box out and poured a few mints into his hand, then returned it to his pocket.
He never carried Tic-Tacs on him until he started taking care of Elsie. She would sometimes lose hers and break down in a fit of tears. Out of habit he carried a box around, just as he cleared his schedule every Thursday night for a date with Vanna in all her rippling glory.
e in the hours spent at the bingo hall.
ie shouted to the audience of strangers after she won a bingo and called Chris by his fathers name. She looked so happy.
"Hey, darlin," said a man next to Elsiea stranger. "It looks like you missed one."
"Well, look at that!" she chuckled. "I sure did! Thank you, I must have forgotten."