“Everything okay, mister?” The patrolman aimed his flashlight directly at me.
I swallowed hard and shielded my eyes. There was no satisfactory way to explain why anybody would be on the streets of Oakhill at 11:45 at night. “Fine, officer.”
“Out a bit late, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir. Just enjoying the fresh air.” A weak first attempt.
“Fresh air, huh?”
“The AC is broken back home.” I held my breath.
The blinding light dropped to the ground in front of my feet. No one could blame a man for seeking escape from a stale apartment in this heat.
“Seen anybody else out here?”
“Should I be on the lookout for someone?”
“Got some folks wandered off from the nursing home again. Nothing to worry about. Call us if you see anything.”
“You might check the park. That’s where they found ol’ Billy.” I smiled and tipped my imaginary hat and watched the patrol car creep back down Magnolia Avenue. Once it cleared the square, I ducked past the glow of streetlights and whispered into the darkened alley, “Everybody all right?”
Iris nearly ran me over with her wheelchair. “C’mon on out, Sam. Let’s go, Violet.”
I tried to shush her. “Iris, they’re out looking for you. You’ve got to be more careful.”
“Oh, phooey. Don’t’ be a party pooper, Roger. We’re just getting started. After all, this might be my last night out for a very long time.” She winked at me.
This might be her last night out period. Iris was at least ninety. Even so, she had taken charge of this little pack and somehow managed to get herself and her eighty-something-year old sister past nurses and security guards and out the front door of the only nursing home in Oakhill.
I don’t think Sam had been part of Iris’s escape plan. Nor was I. They didn’t expect to find anybody else out, but they had recognized me from working at the home for so long. “Hey there, Roger. We’re going to paint the town red. Wanna come along?” her voice was strong and gritty – partly from her indomitable spirit and partly from smoking most of her life.
Just minutes before I had been moping on a street bench, muttering to myself about my place in the world. The next morning, these three would be quietly mocked as crazy old people by the hairdressers and grocery baggers of our little town. This was my ticket to be a hero. It was like fate had given me a second chance to prove to the board at Oakhill Nursing Home that I was, in fact, a responsible security guard.
But Iris had already taken off down the sidewalk. “Iris? Iris, wait up. Violet, stop her.” Although Violet’s hands had been holding onto the handles of the wheelchair, Iris had been cruising along independently in the first electric wheelchair to leave our little nursing home.
Sam followed Violet. We had made quite a parade up Martin Luther King Boulevard. We had already passed the pharmacy and were about to reach the TG &Y on the corner when Iris stopped and pointed at a lone shopping cart left outside the front door. She had positioned her wheelchair at the crosswalk in the road and waved for Sammy to come along side of her. “Now get in.” Sam tried to obey, but the cart kept rolling away from his pudgy frame.
“Roger, be a good lad and help Sammy out.”
“Roger, are you in or not?”
For reasons I still don’t understand, I obeyed Iris. I held the buggy while Sam got in. I gave Violet my handkerchief to wave us off. And I pushed Sam down the middle of Martin Luther King in a race against a determined old lady sporting a surprisingly fast wheelchair. There were cheers all around.
At that point, we could have still gone back. Everyone had had a little a fun. Nobody had gotten hurt. But then they would have woken up telling tales of their adventures downtown -- with me. I had already lost my job after sneaking Billy’s granddaughter in earlier this year. Had it been worth it? Waiting in unemployment lines and filling out countless applications and having my AC cut off in the middle of June. That’s when the patrolmen’s headlights had rounded the corner into the downtown square.
The threesome hid in an alley way like toddlers who think they can’t be seen as long as their faces are covered.
I was in too deep; I couldn’t expose them without exposing myself. And now here we were standing on the street corner with the downtown clock about to strike midnight.
Sam sighed. “Mr. Roger, it’s hot. I want to swim. Momma used to let me swim at the Y.”
Sam was younger than Iris and Violet by several decades. He was one of those lost boys, always smiling and never growing up. The doctors called him a Mongol when he was a boy, but now they have a new name for his condition. We just called him Smiling Sammy, and everyone treated him like family at the home when his mother died.
“Well, the Y is not open in the middle of the night, Sam”
“We could go there.” Our eyes followed his pointing finger to the public fountain in the middle of the square.
If electric wheelchairs had a second gear, Iris had already found it, and Sam chased after her. I sighed until Violet took me by the arm. She rarely spoke, but she smiled at me with gentle eyes and crinkled crow’s feet as if to say, “It’s okay, Roger. I’ll go with you.”
We crossed the square slowly with her arm locked onto mine. I found myself standing a little taller at the end of that walk. As I looked for the first time at a wedding ring on Violet’s wrinkled hand, I imagined her as a younger woman. A lifetime ago, she was a radiant bride. She baked cookies and rocked babies on a porch swing. Tonight she still had the instinct to nurture me even while succumbing to a mind and body slowly lugging her back to childhood. I felt sure she was holding my arm for support, but I wasn’t entirely sure who the support was for – me or her.
Either way, I thought I owed her a strong arm and a straight back.
When we arrived at the fountain, Sammy had already stripped off his pajama shirt, and was about to climb into the bubbly waters.
“Wait. Take off your shoes, Sam.” I helped him roll up his pant legs and held his hand as he stepped in.
He gasped and put both hands over his mouth, his eyes a mixture of surprise and delight.
“Is it cold?”
He nodded vigorously, hands still clasped over an open mouth.
Iris lit up a cigarette. Where she got that little piece of contraband I will never know. She taunted Sammy as if her evening entertainment was hiding backstage, “I thought you were going to swim. Get out there, and show us what you’ve got.”
He shook his head.
“It can’t be that cold. It’s the middle of June.”
Sam bent over and reached his hands into the cold. He grinned. Then he splattered Iris with a gush of water and a squeal of laughter.
“Why, you little stinker.” Iris cackled along with Sammy and drove herself right on up to the water’s edge where she splashed him back.
They carried on like that for a little while, only lightly misting Violet in their fun. She was fingering the azalea bushes nearby. They had long lost their blooms, and it occurred to me that she might never have gotten out to see them in the spring. In fact, I wondered, when was the last time she had seen the azaleas in full bloom? They were a natural part of the rhythms of southern life. What would it be like to lose that sense of time passing? Is this why some so many residents of Oakhill Nursing Home wandered aimlessly in and out of decades?
I helped her cut off several of the younger stems she seemed to be set on having for herself. Did she think she could grow azaleas back in her room at the home? I couldn’t bring myself to tell her they wouldn’t root there.
I stared at Magnolia Avenue, the road which would take us back to the home. I knew we had to go back. It was the right thing to do. It was safe there. I felt an ominous rumbling in the air around me. It was as if God himself were confirming the dreaded choice I had to make.
“Roger, dear, help Sammy out before he shivers to death.”
I did my best to help him dry off with my shirt sleeves, but he was shaking pretty bad, and his thin pajama shirt added little warmth. Then the first drops of rain began to fall. “Iris, head for the bank. I’ll get these two.” She looked at the sky and poor Sammy and swallowed her first inclination to protest.
I hurried to retrieve the shopping cart we had used earlier and helped Sam into the buggy. “Scrunch up. We have to make room for Violet this time.” They looked like overgrown children clinging to the sides of the cart as we raced the impending rain clouds to the shelter of the drive-through of the First National Bank. We beat the worst of the shower, but now all of us were wet.
Sammy was trembling and his teeth were chattering. I wrapped my arms around him, hoping for my body heat to smother out the cold.
Violet was playing with her azalea stems. Iris was trying to light another cigarette. They seem completely indifferent to the absurd picture we made. We were only a block away from home. “We need to get you all back. It’s late.”
Iris glared at me. “That’s easy for you to say. You get to leave once you’ve dumped us.”
“Iris, I’d love to stay. I’d love to have my old job back. But they won’t let me.”
Sam raised his eyes to mine, “You can visit us.”
Iris was indignant. “Fat chance, kid. How many visitors do we get?”
“I’ll visit you. If they let me. If they find out I was covering for you tonight, they might not let me.”
Sam put his finger to his lips and giggled, “Secret.”
Iris studied the buggy intently. “Roger, we all know certain people can’t keep a secret,” she flicked a cigarette butt and pointed at me, “but I’ll cover for you -- if you’ll come visit Sam and Violet every week. I won’t be around much longer, and they’re . . . they’re going to need some fun. You’ll be a good sport about it, won’t you?”
I nodded. It was the highest compliment she could pay me. I was a good sport.
Sammy had stopped shivering and the rain had let up. “So we’re all going back together, right?”
Iris, as always, took the lead, and I pushed the cart behind her. We stopped at the edge of the nursing home where I helped Sam and Violet out of their oversized stroller. I put one hand on Sammy’s shoulder and pointed with the other at the phone booth across the street, “I want you to stay here. I’m going over there to call for help. They’ll come outside and get you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Roger.” He gave me one of his bear hugs normally reserved for fellow patients. Staff didn’t get bear hugs, but then again I wasn’t staff anymore.
”Sure, little buddy, make sure you get some hot cocoa out of this.” I paused and cleared my throat, “Ms. Violet, you hold onto Sammy’s arm. Sam, be still and stand up straight. We don’t want to Ms. Violet to fall, do we?”
Violet pulled out her azalea stems from behind her back. She had been weaving them into a simple braided wreath which she reached up to place on my head. I had to kneel down in a puddle to receive my crown, and when I stood up, I reached out to clasp one of her delicate hands between between mine. “Thank you for a lovely evening, Ms. Violet.” She smiled simply, but her eyes were far away. I was probably not Roger anymore, but some young sailor leaving her for Europe.
I stood up tall and tipped my imaginary hat at Iris who winked knowingly at me. “Good night, Roger. We’ll see you around.”