Only two weeks of summer vacation sat between me and school when I breezed through the doors of the Autumn Springs Assisted Care Center. I found Miss Cheryl at the front desk, going on with another nurse about her daughter and the latest drama with her no good boyfriend. I smiled, pretending not to listen as I signed in at the guest register.
Miss Cheryl touched my hand and shot me a wink. I’d been coming there for nearly a month now—not quite every day, but maybe four times a week—and she was the best. She was great with Mr. Melvin, who in a short time had already managed to make a name for himself in a place where I’d watched a lady walk around with her socks pulled over her shoes.
The other nurse hustled off, because the nurses there were always busy and rushing off to the next crisis. Autumn Springs isn’t quite a hospital, but it sure isn’t a spa either. It’s nice, I guess, for what it is, and most of the staff is cheerful and patient. Miss Cheryl came around the desk and took my hands.
“Oh Nita, thank goodness you’re here, Mr. Melvin is having a day.”
“A day” for Mr. Melvin was code for being a big old grump. And since I knew him better than anyone there, or anywhere, I was leaned on to coax him out of his room when he was having one of those “days”.
I didn’t have long. Mom wanted me home by dinner and I’d already slipped by Sampson Middle school to see how Mrs. Womack’s classroom was coming along. Mrs. Womack had been my seventh grade teacher and she was always good for a pep talk about the upcoming year, even one at a brand new school.
Now there was work to do. It seemed Mr. Melvin was having more and more “days” these days. “Let me see what I can do.”
Miss Cheryl gave me a warm smile and I set off for room 414, home to Autumn Spring’s resident curmudgeon, as he’d been called.
Walking along the plush carpet and identical doors that lined the hallway, I thought back to when Mr. Melvin had to move out of his apartment and into this place. I’d been so upset that I cried for two straight days. He certainly hadn’t looked sick. But Vince, the lead singer of the band Mr. Melvin had been touring with—part of his lifelong dream that had finally come true—said that it wasn’t that simple. That his brain was sick, not so much his body.
It hadn’t made sense then, and I still didn’t know what exactly was going on with him. The biggest difference I’d found, was that sometimes his eyes got wobbly and confused, like he’d just landed on planet Earth and was taking it all in. Another new development—and I didn’t see the harm in this one—was that when he wasn’t having a day, his mood was more childlike and light. He ate candy and laughed and rambled on about his childhood until my ears melted like wax and slid right off my head. Almost at least. But it could all change in a flash, let him get in a mood and he could be meaner than a snake in a hornet’s nest.
Some of the doors to the rooms were open, and I waved to old smiley, Mr. Gillespie in 402. From what I could tell, Mr. Gillespie was in Autumn Springs just for the company. He was eighty or a hundred, hard to tell, but was sharp as they came. Just ask any one of the nursing staff, they’d tell you all about Mr. Gillespie’s slick hands to go with that sharp mind. I kept away from that open-door policy of his.
Room 414 however, was shut. I tried the handle—locked of course—so I gave it a few bangs being that the old man’s hearing was shot. I remembered him telling me how great it was to be in room 414, something about Robert Johnson. Mr. Melvin had been known to tell a tale or two, was still on a first name basis with those lies of his, so sometimes I had to tune him out. Another two bangs and he started barking.
“Who is it?”
I heard a grunt. Something crashed to the floor. If I had to guess he’d banged into that table in his kitchenette, the one he was always cursing, calling it cheap like everything else in the room. The door opened and my cantankerous friend stood before me like he’d just marched through a thicket of briars.
“Word is you’re being difficult.”
“I’m not,” he said, tossing a glare down the hall. “They are.”
I rolled my eyes, brushing past him and into the room. Sure enough that little table was cockeyed against the wall, two overturned chairs on the floor. I picked one up. “Okay, so what’s the problem?”
“Movie night,” he grumbled. “I ain’t watching Casablanca.”
I took a seat on the couch. The best thing to do when he got like this was to remain calm. Let that old man know he’d scratched a wound in your skin and the claws came out. I picked up the dinner menu for the upcoming week, crossed my legs and sighed did my best to look uninterested.
“Let me guess, they won’t go for your documentary?”
“Nope. I’ve put in for it seven times. Keep saying, ‘we’ll take it into consideration.’ I know when I’m being taken for a ride.”
“Could it be because of the language?”
I’d watched that blues documentary with him something like five times. Sure, the music was great, but there was a lot of drinking and cursing. No way would those holy rollers at Autumn Springs go for it. But that’s Mr. Melvin for you. Once he got something stuck in that mind of his, sick or not, he wasn’t going to let it go.
“Language my foot,” he said stomping. “We’re all adults here.”
I looked up from the menu, then let it pass. Too easy. “Well, let’s get to the cafeteria, something smells delicious.”
Of course he said he wasn’t going. I looked at him real hard, into those cloudy eyes of his, trying to figure him out. To see if he remembered this exact—and I mean right down to the foot stomp—conversation last week. He had to, I told myself, still studying him closely. Then again, nobody was this good of an actor. The intensity, the pouting, right up to way his lip jutted out like a child. He set his angry gaze on his feet, then straight ahead at nothing when he took a big loud breath through his nose.
It was baffling to me, how he couldn’t remember these moments but could go on about some storm, the weather fifty years ago? He caught me staring at him. “What?”
I looked away, forcing my shoulders to shrug like I didn’t care. Like I wasn’t freaking out that that my good friend was actually brain sick, whatever that was.
“Nothing, nothing at all.”
I hopped up and opened his shades. He had a decent view of the gazebo out front. The fourth wing had the best view, the other three opened up to the parking lot. Even still, I missed having my old neighbor on the other side of the wall. I missed visiting his apartment with its warmth and glow. Even with his things in 414, it just didn’t have the character. The cracked plaster and hardwood floors, where he’d taught me so much about The Civil Rights movement and sacrifice. About Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Sam Cooke and Jackie Robinson, they were all here, on these walls, but they just weren’t coming alive like they had in his apartment.
He blinked a few times, shielding his face from the view like the world’s most dramatic vampire. I rolled my eyes.
“Oh come on, Mr. Melvin, a little sunshine won’t kill you.”
He shifted in his recliner. Out the window, one of the staff members was pushing along an old lady in a wheelchair, past the pond with the little bridge. She didn’t seem to notice that she was outside, or anything at all really. Mr. Melvin cleared his throat.
“Did I tell you what happened over at Joe’s place the other night?”
I froze, swallowed hard, then turned to him but didn’t make it and looked back to the window to blink a few times. Joe was his childhood friend, a boy who he used to run around causing trouble with when he was younger than me. He and Joe bet Marvin Peel that he couldn’t pee across the electric fence. Slowly, I took a seat and gave my attention to Mr. Melvin, to the dull gleam in his gray eyes. I forced back the small burn of tears and shook my head, knowing I had to be home soon but soon would have to wait.
“No, Mr. Melvin, what happened?”
I’m sure there were better ways to spend my thirteenth birthday, but hearing that story again, about how poor Marvin Peel got lit up like the county fair wasn’t so bad. Mr. Melvin laughed his way through the end with a few new details, a few new words and chuckles and cackles and by the time he was done he was carrying on and had all but forgotten about his griping and complaining.
So with my job done, I checked out and said goodbye to Miss Cheryl. I headed home, to where Mom was waiting, ready to fuss. Because these days she was always fussing at me.