The old lady couldn't walk and she was hard of hearing. She
was a shut-in and had a metal walker to get her in and out
of the bathroom. We were residents in garden apartments on
the outskirts of the city. I lived on the third floor and
she lived right below me. She played her TV too loud and I
would complain to her that she had to compromise. I would
knock on her door but she was afraid to answer. I would yell
through the door for her to turn down the TV and then wait
to hear her moving that walker to the TV. It was old, too.
I don't think she had a remote. She claimed she had to have
the TV, it was all she had.
In retaliation I stomped my feet until the whole room shook.
It was like I was stomping on her. She yelled up to me through
her ceiling that I was frightening her. But the next day I
stomped again. It went on like that. I knocked on her door
and waited the six or seven minutes until she opened up. She
said she was afraid I was going to give her a stroke.
And then she did have a stroke. It was on a windy afternoon
in the fall when I went outside on one of my walks in the
neighborhood. I walked a long time and came back as the ambulance
men were dragging her down the stairs on a cart. About three
weeks later, I heard from a neighbor who used to visit her
that she'd gotten released from the hospital. They'd taken
her to the old people's home on the west side of town, off
Bridge Road. He said she couldn't speak anymore and was confined
to her bed.
I thought about visiting her. We'd had some friendly chats.
I'd sat with her in her apartment and listened to her tell
what the city had been like when she was growing up. She'd
told me about her husband, and she complained that the blacks
were moving uptown. I told her that I had two brothers who
were stockbrokers, and that I was the youngest and had grown
up in Philadelphia. I assured her I'd stop my stomping. This
was a few days before the stroke. Then one day when I came
inside from one of my walks the neighbor, Tommy Sullivan,
an old man himself who didn't have a car, asked me to drive
him over to see the old lady in the old people's home. She
doesn't have any other visitors, Tommy told me.
A black lady was in the bed across from her. I knew this
was the old lady's last room and it didn't matter who was
in the other bed. The old lady looked like a big lump, her
white hair bobby pinned to stay out of her eyes. There was
only one chair, which Tommy took. He sat beside her and I
The old lady's eyes watered. She could move her lips but
no words came out. I checked my watch. I didn't want to be
there all day. The black lady stared at me through thick glasses,
and I smiled at her. She looked away then, out the window.
I looked out the window, too. We were on the first floor and
the view was partially blocked by bushes. Tommy was telling
the old lady something, but I wasn't listening. I stood there
thinking how I'd stomped my feet. There was no point in saying
I was sorry now. Some dribble came out of the old lady's mouth.
Tommy used a tissue from the box on the night table and wiped
it for her. Her eyes wouldn't stop watering.
On the drive home Tommy talked about the track. He liked
to play the horses but he couldn't afford anything more than
two dollar bets. I stopped listening after a while and then
we rode the rest of the way in silence.
A few days later, I got in my car and started to drive in
the direction of the old people's home. I didn't know why
I was going back. I drove the whole way without listening
to the radio. The quiet gave me a chance to think. I'd already
planned on not stomping anymore, but then she'd had the stroke.
When I got there, the other bed was empty. I stood by the
old lady's bed, then I pulled the chair over. I didn't think
she recognized me. Her eyes were blue. I hadn't noticed that
before. I didn't want to touch her. I took the tissue, the
way I'd seen Tommy, and tried wiping the dribble. Then, I
sat there, not knowing what to say. I got up after a while
and spoke to the nurse at the nurses station. She told me
the old lady had no visitors, that she must not have family
in the area. Then there was another nurse, and I talked to
the two of them for a while. Then I walked around the halls.
I came back to the old lady's room to see her one last time.
I got this idea that I should take her hand and say something.
The nurse had told me that she could hear and understand everything,
she just couldn't respond. I reached down and pulled her arm,
which was leaden, and I took her hand. It felt awkward. I
wanted to leave then. I didn't really care about the old lady.
I told her I wished I hadn't stomped, and that I felt bad
that I had. She was looking at me, but not like she recognized
me. I told her that her old apartment still hadn't been rented.
I said I'd come out and see her again soon, then I sat there
a while longer, still holding her hand.
She closed her eyes, which I hadn't been expecting. I couldn't
tell if she was breathing, but she must be, I figured. I wondered
if I should get the nurse. Then she opened her eyes again.
She looked at me. Now it looked like she did recognize me.
I went home and forgot about the old lady. I saw Tommy Sullivan,
but I didn't tell him I'd been back to the old people's home.
Then, that Sunday, I again got in the car. Again I didn't
listen to the radio. The old lady was there and the other
bed still empty. I held her hand and wiped her eyes. When
I left this time, I promised myself I wasn't coming back.
I came again on Wednesday. The nurse said her condition had
worsened. It was true, she didn't open her eyes. Can she still
hear me? I asked. The nurse said she could. I went back to
her room for a while. Later I walked around the halls.
I knew there would be a day when I would come and the old
lady wouldn't be there. They would take her body somewhere
and bury it or cremate it or do whatever they did. I never
asked. As I drove home, I thought I should even cry. I looked
out through the windshield at the flow of traffic and realized
I'd never seen anyone die before. My grandfather had died
but that was a long time ago. Soon I got on the freeway, and
I turned on the radio. I turned up a song I liked. I turned
it loud enough to hurt my ears. I wasn't crying at all.
I didn't go back anymore to see the old lady. I hardly ever
thought of her those next few weeks. When I did, at odd times,
I wished I'd gone back one more time. But then I kept not
going back. Then it seemed too late. I figured she would be
dead by now. Then one day, maybe two months later, I saw Tommy
Sullivan, and he told me in fact she had died. He'd heard
about it from a daughter or cousin or someone, it wasn't clear.
But he'd gone to the viewing. I felt something then when he
told me. We were in front of the apartments, both of us facing
the street, not each other. I asked for details, but he said
there wasn't anything more to it. We stood a bit longer, then
I went back inside.