The Longest Day
“OK, honey, time for bed.”
Jack’s eyelids are drooping. He sits in the big chair, idly stroking the velvety upholstery. Up the arms, skimming with his fingertips; down the arms, grazing with his knuckles. Toward him, it is prickly and rough. Away, it is soft and smooth.
“Jack, let’s get your pajamas on you. You’re falling asleep!”
The voice doesn’t sound quite right. He opens his eyes wide and stares at the woman. She isn’t Mama. She doesn’t look familiar at all. What is she doing here? Where is Mama? And Papa?
“Come on, honey.” Her voice is soft and smooth, like the texture of the fabric when he brushes it with his fingertips, moving from the back, trailing them along the arms…
“Jack? Do you need help?”
He looks up at her standing over him, her forehead all bunched up in concern. She extends a hand, as if to pull him up from the chair. With a sudden movement, he swats her arm down. His mouth is tight, nostrils flared, eyes round and fierce.
Now her voice sounds prickly and rough, like touching the nap of the fabric against the grain. He is confused and afraid.
“Wh-wh-wh-where’s Mama?” he asks plaintively, his eyes darting around the room as if searching for his absent mother.
Ruby spoke in a low tone so she wouldn't disturb Jack.
“Oh, it was a bad night! I couldn’t get him to get out of his chair, even though he was falling asleep. I thought, ‘If I could just get him into his pajamas, and convince him to get in the bed, maybe he’ll just fall asleep.’ I tried to take his hand and help him out of the chair, but all of a sudden he struck at me - and I got kind of scared!”
“Oh, Ruby! I guess you would! What happened then? What did you do? Did you tell him you’re his wife?”
“I tried - but that just made him upset. He seemed to be back in time, in his childhood, so of course he didn’t realize he had - has - a wife. I decided to play along a little. I said I know his mother, and I’m taking care of him for her. I was sorry that he wouldn’t be able to get home until morning, but it would be all right for him to stay and get some sleep.”
“Did he stay up all night? Did you ever get him to bed?”
“At first he refused. He said he needed to leave. He didn’t know who I was - who I am - and he needed to get home. He wouldn’t come in our room, so I told him he was welcome to use the guest room, and he agreed. He was so polite then, he thanked me over and over. I thought, ‘Well, at least we can both get some sleep,’ but you can guess how that went.”
“What happened then?”
“Oh, he lay down on the guest bed, stiff as a board, and stared at the ceiling. I told him, ‘I’ll turn off the light now, so you can get some sleep. I’ll just be in the next room.’”
The gray-haired woman with the velvet voice says her name is Ruby. He doesn’t know anyone with that name. Ruby tries to make Jack believe she’s his wife, but he knows that can’t be true! She’s old - she must be older than his mother - and anyway he’s too young to have a wife. He thinks she’s just trying to make him feel like he should stay, but it just makes him feel agitated.
Jack insists he’d better leave right now and go look for Mama. She will be waiting for him, and so will Papa. Maybe Papa is even out looking for him right now! He pulls himself up from the chair and shuffles stiffly to the door. He doesn’t know why his legs don’t work very well; maybe it’s from sitting in the chair too long.
He tries the door, but he can’t open it. The woman - Ruby - tells him again that he needs to wait until morning. It's too late and too dark to go anywhere tonight. He can stay with her. Jack doesn’t think he should stay, but he’s tired and can see that it’s dark outside. Ruby seems to know Mama. Maybe he should stay with her for the night. It will be safer to wait until morning.
Ruby shows him the guest room and invites him to use the bed. She says that she’ll be nearby, in the next room. He climbs onto the bed, but he doesn’t really feel like sleeping even though he’s so tired. He’s worried about Mama and Papa.
The light is off. Jack stares into the darkness. He can’t make himself go to sleep, because he’s thinking about home. Going home. He will try to be quiet when he goes, so Ruby can sleep.
“Let me guess - he didn’t stay in bed?”
“No…” Ruby sighed. “He was quiet, and I thought maybe he’d fallen asleep. I think I dozed off myself, but then I heard footsteps. He went out to the living room. I guess there was just enough light coming in for him to see his way across the room. I bolted out of bed and got out there fast, let me tell you! He was at the door, jiggling the handle.”
“There you are!” Ruby remarks, trying to sound casual. “Are you trying to go out the door?”
“Yes,” Jack answers, not knowing what else to say, because that’s exactly what he’s doing.
“Oh - but it’s still dark out there. Let me help you back to the bedroom. You can stay there until it’s light.”
Jack stands, unmoving. He almost seems to be in a trance. He stares at the door handle for a while, and then turns toward Ruby.
“All right,” he finally concedes.
“He probably forgot how the lock works, right?”
“I think so. I got him back to the bedroom again, and helped him get into the bed. He seemed so compliant and meek, I thought - hoped - that would be the end of it for the night.”
“Obviously it wasn’t?”
“No - it wasn’t.”
Jack really doesn’t want to bother Ruby. He sighs. Poor Mama - she must be so worried about him. And if Papa is out looking for Jack, Mama will be worried about both of them as she waits. Really, he should go. He can just walk home. He’ll be fine.
He gets out of bed again and pads down the hall in his stocking feet, stopping briefly at Ruby’s door to make sure she’s sleeping. He hears her regular breathing and moves on to the living room.
The door does not open. Jack tries pulling, pushing, twisting the knob this way and that. He doesn’t notice that Ruby has come out to watch him. He’s losing strength, wearing himself out. Maybe he should rest for a little bit - sit in the velvet chair again, just for a short time.
“I know I was asleep when I heard something. You know how it is when you’re all muddled with sleep? I forgot that Jack wasn’t on the other side of the bed, and reached my hand out. When I realized, and remembered, I sneaked out there so he wouldn’t notice me. I could barely see him, but I could tell he was heading for the chair. He crawled into it and started running his hands up and down the arms again, like he’s been doing lately - and, you know, next thing, he was asleep!”
“What did you do? Leave him be?”
“Yes. I waited a few minutes, until I heard him snoring, and then tiptoed to the chair and covered him with a blanket. He looked just like a little boy!”
“He is a little boy again, isn’t he? It must be so difficult to see him like that - ”
“Yes, but most of the time he knows who I am, and he appreciates me. Whether he knows it or not, he’s my husband, to love and to cherish.”
“Aww, that’s so nice! Why aren’t you sleeping while you have a chance?”
“I did, for a while. I slept on the couch, I don’t know long, and then I woke up to Jack standing by my side. He was smiling, just watching me sleep.”
Just as it is getting light, Jack wakes up and wonders why he is in the living room. Where is Ruby? He looks across the room, and there she is - curled up on the couch, covered with the quilt that his mother had given them for a wedding gift.
He can no longer keep track of how many years they’ve been married - there are a lot of things he can no longer remember - but he knows Ruby takes good care of him. He slowly levers himself out of the chair and crosses the room to stand by his sleeping wife.
Ruby opens her eyes. Jack is standing over her, smiling.
“Good morning, dear!” he says, reaching down to pat her hand.
“Good morning,” she answers. Her voice is soft and smooth, like velvet.