On the Inside Looking Out

by

      It’s morning again in room 207. Irene wakes to a knock at her door.  She turns on the bedside lamp and calls, “Who is it?”

      “Your breakfast is here,” a woman’s voice answers.

      “I’ll be right there.” Irene answers.

      Irene puts on her robe and opens the door to the nursing assistant with a tray in her hands.  “Come on in dear, you can set it right over there on the table.”  She lifts the dome lid from the tray and finds her favorite, two hard boiled eggs and two strips of crisp bacon.  A hot cup of black coffee rounds out the meal and Irene is ready to start her day.

      She looks in her closet and pulls out her business suit, the navy pinstripe that makes her look slimmer.  She chooses the white silk blouse because the feel of it against her skin reminds her of the time Lester was home more often. His fingertips liked silk. She can’t afford the bracelets that she sells at Miller and Ashby Jewelers, but she has a nice gold one that looks, from a distance, like it might have come from there.  Her hair has been set, her stockings are fresh, with no runs, and her heels are stylish.  She turns this way and that at the mirror, making sure that she sees perfection.  She may have some wrinkles on her face, but there will be none in her clothing.   She is ready for work.  Unlike most women of her generation, she’s a working girl.  She has to be, because Lester comes and goes as he pleases.  She can’t remember the last time he was home, or helping to pay the bills.  She’d be glad if he did come home though, even for just one night.

      Irene closes the door to her room and walks down the carpeted hallway past the doors of other residents.  Several of the doors are open, which seems odd to Irene, who thinks, “I always close and lock the door to my apartment.”  She finds herself looking into the lives of the people who allow examination.  Some are neat; some hoard, with newspapers, mail and boxes stacked or spilling over onto the floor.  For a moment, Irene wonders if intelligence depends on the amount of important papers you save.  She is tidy and organized. She cannot tolerate one thing out of place. She is meticulous.  She prides herself on it. She shakes her head in pity for the clutter of others. 

       Irene looks at the clock in the hallway.  It’s 8:30 already. She hurries her step; she doesn’t want to be late for work.  She looks into her purse for her keys. They are not there.  Before she can turn to go back and look for them, a woman passing her in the hallway says, “Good morning,  “I.”  Irene’s sister was the only one who called her “I.”  Was that Mary?  Irene’s attention diverts from the open purse.  She turns and walks in the direction of the voice. 

      “Mary, Mary is that you?  Mary?  Did you just pass me?”  She squints, looking for the dark haired woman who passed her. Irene raises her voice, calling loudly, “MARY!” She begins running as best as she can in her heels, calling Mary’s name.

      “Whoa, Irene, slow down, honey, why are you running?  Those heels are going to throw you,” a nurse dressed in a white uniform says as she puts her arm out in front of Irene to slow her pace.

      “It was my sister Mary. She called to me and I was trying to catch up to her.  Let me go find her,” Irene says, trying to push through the arm holding her back.  “Let me find her before she’s gone.  MARY!” Irene yells down the hallway.  The dark haired woman has rounded the corner, disappearing from Irene’s sight, but other people in the hallway stare at Irene as if she’s lost her mind. “Now look at what you’ve done,” Irene accuses the nurse.  “Mary’s gone and I’ll never find her.”

      “I’m sorry Irene. I was worried about you falling. Let’s walk in that direction and see if we can find her.  Tell me a little about your sister Mary.  What was she like?”

      Irene starts walking, but stops as she thinks.  “She was my little sister. I was born in 1919 and she was born six years later.  She looked up to me and always wanted to do what I did and go where I went.  She died right after Lester and I were married.  It nearly broke my Mother’s heart.” 

      Irene remembers that Mary was buried at Oak Lawn. It was a nice funeral, a beautiful day, Irene and Lester had sent pink gladiolas, Mary’s favorite. The preacher spoke about how love holds a family together.   Lester wasn’t at the funeral. He was “working” out of town that week.  Lester “worked” at a lot of things, lying mostly, and cheating. Irene’s jaw clenches.  Mary’s voice used to soothe her.

    Irene turns away quickly from the nurse and the stares and shaking heads of the strangers in the hallway.  She collects herself and her thoughts.  Where is she? What is she doing? She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes, thinking, pushing the organization she loves to the forefront of her brain.  Opening her eyes again, she looks down at her business suit.  Oh, that’s right, she is going to work, Miller and Ashby Jewelers.  She can’t be late. She’s the breadwinner. She takes another deep breath, this one to calm her nerves.  She pulls the open purse up again and looks for her keys.  They are not there.  She must have left them on her dresser.

      Irene spots the Exit sign, clicks her purse closed, cutting off thoughts of the keys, and walks toward the sign.  She sees the parking lot and street beyond the lobby door.  There’s a mirror at the front door. Irene stops and looks at her reflection.  She looks good in her business suit,  professional, put-together, smart.  Her lipstick is smeared, though.  She reaches in her purse for a tissue, dabs at the smear and reapplies from the tube of rose color. Rose looks best with this suit.  She notices the reflection of the lobby receptionist in the mirror.  She smiles and waves at the nice young woman on the phone.  As she puts the lipstick away, she searches for her keys. They are not there. 

      The lobby door opens and the cool air catches Irene’s attention.  A good looking man in a suit holds the door open for her.  She closes her purse, smiles up at the man holding the door and walks out past him.  “Thank you very much sir, there are not many gentlemen left in the world today.”

      “You’re welcome, have a nice day, Ma’am.”

      Irene returns the sentiment and walks toward the cars in the parking lot.  She opens her purse, searching for her keys.  Now, where has she left her keys?  She must have left them in her apartment.  She turns back toward the building.  She opens the lobby door and walks inside.  The young woman who is the lobby receptionist hangs up the phone, smiles and says, “Good Morning, Irene.  Were you outside?”

      Irene turns and looks at the lobby door, thinking what an odd question.  “Yes, I just got here,” Irene says, placing her purse on the desk and signing the nursing home guest book.  The receptionist looks puzzled.

      “Are you alright, dear?” Irene asks.

       “Oh sure, I’m fine,” the receptionist says, shaking her head a bit.  “I just need to check that door and make sure that it’s working properly.  There’ve been some problems with it lately, usually it alarms when….”

      “Well, it was working just fine when I came in,” Irene says.  “How is my mother?  Have you seen her this evening?  I have been running my legs off today, working and running errands.  I’ve only just gotten an opportunity to get here to see her.”

       “This evening? Your mother? Your mother doesn’t…” the receptionist stumbles over her words.  “I, I don’t believe I’ve seen your mother.”

      “That’s alright,” Irene says, chuckling. “Why don’t you get a cup of strong coffee to perk you up, dear, and I’ll go look for her.  She can’t have wandered too far, can she?  It’s not like she can run away.”   Irene turns and walks into the carpeted hallway of the nursing home.  She shakes her head and thinks that no matter how many times she comes to visit, she is still depressed by the dazed looks and drooped heads.  She regrets the day she had to put her mother here.  If Lester wasn’t so selfish, she could have stayed at home and cared for her mother like a good daughter.  Her mother and father had warned her about Lester when she first took up with him, but she didn’t listen.  Her mother’s voice echoes in her head, “If you can’t listen, you have to feel.”  She had spent most of her life “feeling”, feeling cheated, taken advantage of, responsible for everything, and angry.  Those feelings beat at her, over and over again.

      She walks down the hall and spots a woman in a wheelchair, the one she calls Mama.  From the back, the woman’s wavy gray hair hangs to her shoulders.  Irene reminds herself to speak to the nurse before she leaves about getting her mother a cut and set.  She rounds the wheelchair and stops to look at the old lady.  Irene remembers the woman who knew every inch of her at one time, the one who used to sing “Irene Goodnight” to her when she was a little girl, the one who put a cool cloth to her head when she was sick and kissed her nightmares away, the one who now, never remembered who Irene was.  “Hello Mama,” Irene says.  “How are you feeling today?” 

      The woman looks up at her with angry eyes and says, “I’m not your Mama.  I’m not anyone’s Mama.  I never had children.  Get away from me you crazy old bat.  I don’t know why you insist that I am your mother; you’re older than I am.  Every day, you call me Mama, and every day, I tell you I’m not your Mama. Stop calling me that and leave me alone.”

       Irene reaches her hand out to the woman,  her eyes pleading for recognition, for a mother’s understanding.  This woman, who is no longer the mother she remembers, slaps Irene’s hand away and turns the wheelchair,  so that her back is to her only living child.  Irene has never felt more alone than she does at this moment.  A man’s love can come and go. Lester’s love was like that; she had come to expect that; but a mother’s love should stay.  Your mother should never forget you. Irene looks down at her hand, pink now and still stinging from the impact of her mother’s rejection.  She turns it over, staring at her palm.  She had it read one time by a fortune teller who told her that she would find perfect love, not money as she had hoped, but perfect love which she hadn’t expected to hear.  That fortune had given her hope at a time when she needed it.  She wanted that love to be Lester’s.  She now wishes that she had wanted it to be her mother’s.  Irene’s shoulders curve inward.  She feels tears well in her eyes as she rubs the back of her hand.   

     Irene attempts to console herself with the thought that her mother is not responsible anymore.  She’s confused. Confusion is an awful thing.  Having your mind stolen from you is the last insult you can be dealt.  Irene sends up a small prayer thanking the almighty that she is still in her good mind.  

      She sees a nursing assistant coming toward them in the hallway.  Irene motions for her to come closer and whispers, “Has anything happened to upset her this morning?  She just hit me.”

      “I don’t think so Irene, but you know how we all have good days and bad days.  This could be a bad day for her.   Sometimes it’s best just to leave people alone for a while, let them work it out.  Why don’t you give her a little space and come back later.  Are you hurt?”

      “Only my pride, dear,” Irene says with a shaky smile.  “Sounds like good advice.  Thank you for your help.  I’ll be back tomorrow.”

      Irene knows that her mother would be appalled and ashamed if she was in her right mind and could see how she was behaving.  “There for the Grace of God…,” Irene says out loud as she straightens her back and collects her purse from the table in the dayroom.  She needs to leave before dark.  She can’t see to drive in the dark anymore.  She opens her purse and looks for her keys.  They are not there.   Maybe she left them at the reception desk when she signed in.

      Irene walks toward the lobby.  The workers call her by her name and ask her how she is.   Some reach out and pat her or grasp her hand.   If she had to put her mother in a nursing home, at least this one is clean and has nice people.  She stops and asks the receptionist if she’s found a set of keys.  “Sorry Irene, no keys.  Maybe they’re in your room.”

      “You mean my mother’s room? No they can’t be there, we visited in the day room.  I think I may have left them in the car.   Goodness, I hope not.  Some poor confused soul could have gotten in my car, thinking it was theirs.  I’ll go out and check the car,” Irene says as she turns toward the front door.

      “Let me go with you, Irene,” says the receptionist. as the phone rings.  “Wait just a second for me to answer the phone and then we’ll both go look for your keys.”

      “Alright,” Irene says.  

      The young woman answers the phone and turns to look in a file drawer.   “You’re busy, dear, I’ll be fine,” says Irene.

      Irene steps to the door and puts her hand on it.  There’s a beeping sound.  Irene looks around, shrugs and pushes the panic bar at the door.  It’s locked, that’s strange; this is the front door. The parking lot is just on the other side of the door, the handicapped parking spaces, right there on the other side of the porch.  The beeping is coming faster.  Irene pushes harder and shakes the panic bar.  The beeping has become a shrill siren now and the door still won’t open.  Irene pushes harder, throwing her weight at the door.  “What is wrong with this door?” She breaks out in a sweat.  Her heart pounds.  Suddenly, the door gives, opens and Irene’s weight carries her headlong onto the porch.  She grabs for the railing as her ankle twists, and the heel of her shoe snaps off.  “Damn,” she says, catching herself on the railing and bending to inspect her shoe.  

      She hears the siren still shrieking , and feet running, pounding behind her, pounding like her heart, pounding like Lester did at the door when she locked him out of the house.  She turns her head to see two men in hospital uniforms running toward her.  They look harried and stern.  She expects them to run past her, to some medical emergency down the street, to answer that siren. Instead, they stop in front of her.  The burliest one says her name.  “Irene, where are you going?” 

      She doesn’t recognize him.  “I don’t know you.  How do you know my name?  And it’s none of your business where I’m going or what I’m doing,” she says, her eyes flashing anger.  “You must have me confused with someone else.”

      “Come on Irene, of course we know you. We see you every day, talk to you, help you out when you need it.”

      Irene stops and frowns. This worries her.  She wonders how these men know her name.  Why are they asking her questions? She doesn’t recognize them or understand why they are lying to her.  Fear fills her. She should run or scream, but doesn’t want to make a fool of herself.  She wonders if this is a joke that Lester is playing on her.  This would be something he would do.  “Did Lester put you up to this?” she asks.

      “No, Lester sent us to find you,” says the younger, smaller one.  “He’s inside waiting for you.”

      Irene stops.  Lester sent for her?  He’s home?  He missed her?  “He’s inside?” she asks, forgetting her fear, remembering Lester.

      “We saw him.   Let us help you back inside and we’ll look for him,” the burly one says.

   “Oh look, your shoe is broken,” says the younger man.  She can’t remember it breaking.  The young man picks up the heel. “Why don’t you put this in your purse so you won’t lose it.  That broken shoe will throw you off balance.  Let us help you back to your room so you don’t fall.”

      Irene puts the heel in her purse and snaps it shut. She slides the handle onto her arm and allows the men to assist her into the building.  “Lester’s there?  He sent for me?”

      “Let’s go check.  He’s probably there waiting for you now,” says the burley man.

      At the door to her room, the two men bid her farewell.  “Thank you for your help,” she calls.  They wave goodbye. “Such nice boys,” Irene says.  

      She opens the door of her room to the darkness.  The drapes are drawn against the sun and shadows cover the order of Irene’s world. As usual, Lester is not home.   She turns on the bedside lamp, slips off her shoes, and sits on the edge of the bed.   She picks up the shoe with the broken heel, wondering how it happened.  She will have to take it to the repair shop tomorrow.  She’ll have to leave a little early to drop it off on her way to work. Irene wonders what she did with the heel.  She gets up and takes off her business suit, hangs it and her blouse in the closet. She puts her underclothes in the hamper and opens her nightgown drawer.  She slips on the green silk one.  It feels good against her skin.  “Who knows,” she says.  “Lester may come home tonight.”  She pulls back the covers and slides between the crisp sheets.  She turns off the bedside light.  She closes her eyes, waiting. 

       Irene is awakened by a knock at the door.  She opens her eyes and pushes back the covers, gets up and takes her robe from the hook on the door. She slips it on and calls out, “Who is it?”

      “Your lunch is here,” says a man’s voice on the other side of the door.

      Irene opens the door just a crack to see a waiter with a tray.  “I didn’t order room service,” she says, “but since you’ve brought it, I believe I’m hungry.  Thank you.  Just put it on the table over there.”  Irene opens her purse to tip the waiter from room service.  She pulls out the heel of a shoe.  “Now I wonder where this came from?” she says.   She looks up at the waiter who shrugs.  Irene shrugs too and smiles at the nice young man, who looks just a little like Lester when he was younger and was home more often. 

 

 

 

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