The End Of The Road
In her room she sat alone with just the ticking of the clock to remind her that time was actually passing. Otherwise it was easy to forget. Each moment seemed so similar to the one before and the one after. So predictable that after a while she just felt numb as she waited for the same breakfast at 8:o'clock, or lunch at 12 o'clock, or dinner, at 5 o'clock, or her pills which were dispensed at precisely 6 PM.
There was very little that she could control about her life. Even the pill dispenser was beyond her control. It told her when it was time to take her pills. If she didn't push the button so the cup might be dispensed a machine voice continued to remind her until it called someone to warn them that she was being difficult. She learned that it didn't pay to be difficult. In the beginning, when she still thought she had some rights she would refuse to do things when she didn't want to do them but after a while she realized that, as time passed, everyone stopped paying attention to her. They began to treat her as if she had no desires of her own, no rights, no independent life, no hopes, no dreams. Nothing. Just a body in a holding tank.
Once she did what she wanted with no regard for anyone but herself. It wasn't that she was alone. She wasn't. She had children but she resented them for limiting her life so she belittled them, and yelled at them until they hated her, but she didn't care. She just didn't want to be bothered. Finally, when it was too late to do anything about it, no one came to visit her. She was truly alone.
When she was young and beautiful it was easy to manipulate people. She dated men who couldn't control her. Men who had wives, and children, and careers. With a well placed phone call, she could destroy everything so they let her do what she wanted because they knew she would do it but none the less she was irresistible. They gave her presents so she would stay with them, they asked nothing of her.Her parents loved her but she resented them. When she was a child they told her what to do, and worried about her, and limited her. The first opportunity she had to escape their control was when she was 16. But she made a serious mistake. She got married to a service man 10 years older than she was who cheated on her at every opportunity. He finally divorced her and left her with three kids and a dead end job as a sales clerk.
She sat in her apartment in the assisted living facility and stared out the window at freedom. It was a nice enough apartment with beige walls and a window in the living room that looked out on a hillside setting. It had a small kitchenette, a small bath, and a bedroom much smaller than her old bedroom. She had her own furniture; The floral couch, and antique chair set with the matching rose fabric, the faux antique lamp set with a classically dressed man on one and woman on the other, her mahogany end tables, and a double bed that felt cramped because she was used to a king. She was comfortable but it didn't matter because she felt dead inside. Everything about her seemed as grey and worn as a crude sketch.
“Hello Alice. It's time for your bath,” the nurse said. It was Joyce, the heavyset woman that usually came to help her. Alice didn't like the nurse because she wore too much makeup, and her uniform was too tight. She also disliked her hair, worn in a 70's beehive that made her look like she was going to a costume party. The nurse didn't like Alice either because, more than once, Alice's caustic negativity made her depressed and she took it out on her kids when she went off shift. So it was a standoff. Joyce just trying to do her job and Alice hating her.
“I don't want to take a bath.”
“Now Alice, you know you always take a bath at 4 o'clock. It gives you enough time to get ready for dinner.”
“I don't want dinner.” Alice said. She was hungry but she was also desperate to acquire some control over some aspect of her life.
“Well, we can't have you miss dinner Alice.”
“It's my dinner. I'll miss it if I want to.”
“Oh Alice,” Joyce said with patient, feigned pleasantness. “You know you want to eat. What's the matter, didn't you take your nap after lunch?”
“I don't want to take a nap after lunch.”
“My, my, you are in a contrary mood today aren't you.”
Alice didn't answer. She knew it was pointless. If she protested too much there was always the tranquilizer which made it impossible to think straight, let alone resist,but she struggled to find some way to be free.
If only I could escape she thought. But escape was impossible. The doors were always locked and the only way out was past the reception desk where anyone leaving had to sign out. Her only escape was to look out the window.
Meanwhile Joyce was preparing her bath. Alice knew it was just a matter of a few moments before she would be unable to resist Joyce's determination. The schedule was rigid that way. It was ten after four and she needed to be in the tub by four fifteen in order to get dressed and be wheeled to the dining room by five.She had an idea. She wheeled to the desk and picked up the brass
sculpture of a horse that her daughter gave her for Christmas. It was heavy but manageable. She was cheered momentarily to think that she just might get away with it.
She rolled herself to the bathroom door and slowly rose from the wheelchair. She knew she wouldn't be able to stand up for too long but she might have just enough time to carry out her plan. As Alice shuffled through the door and came up behind Joyce, she was bent over the tub, testing the water, sprinkling in the lavender bubble bath, and adjusting the rubber non slip mat. Joyce didn't turn around because she anticipated that Alice had capitulated, knowing that resistance was futile, and was waiting meekly for her to be finished preparing the bath.
As Joyce turned away from the tub Alice swung the heavy statuette at her head, and struck her in the temple with a sickening thud that sounded like a baseball bat hitting a ripe melon. Joyce crumpled soundlessly to the floor and lay in a heap at her feet. Alice couldn't believe it had been so easy. The first step in her plan was a success, but how to escape? That was the big problem.
Alice had another idea. On various occasions she had seen a laundry delivery truck pull up to the building and once, when she was out on the patio, she saw an overweight young man in a gray uniform with Speedy Wash Laundry Services stitched on the back push a large rolling cart out toward the building, and later lift it into the back of a truck by means of a lift gate. Alice knew where the laundry room was. As the truck came on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and it just happened to be Wednesday all that was needed was for her to find the rolling cart and hide in it. She wheeled herself into the hallway and proceeded past the living dead in their wheelchairs, drooling on their shoes, until she came to the corridor leading to the laundry room. At the end of the short corridor a door marked LAUNDRY SERVICES was opened with some difficulty. The doorknob stuck and it was hard to turn the handle. Finally she managed to open the door and wheel herself in. The light switch was higher than she could reach from her wheel chair so she grasped the doorknob with one hand and pushed herself up from the wheelchair with the other. She turned it on, and sat down with a sigh.
The room was cluttered with cleaning supplies, a couple of ladders, and various shelves and stacks of large boxes marked “toilet paper”, and “sanitary diapers”. 2 large hampers stood in the center of the room near a double door.
She was beginning to get very tired so she shuffled over to the hampers. One of them was full and the other was nearly empty. She folded the wheelchair and struggled to lift it over the rim. She nodded in satisfaction that her plan, so far, had proceeded without a hitch. Then it was her turn. First she tried to lift her leg over the lip of the full hamper but that proved impossible.“Damn arthritis” She said with a disgusted shake of her head. “Damn old body.”She bent over with her head and shoulders inside the hamper and continued to lean forward until finally she was able to worm her way into the hamper. She pushed the soiled laundry aside and laid the wheelchair beneath it. Then she curled up and pulled the laundry over her and the chair. The damp towels and sheets stunk of urine and death but she tried to ignore it as best she could.
After all, it could be worse. She thought.
“Now all I have to do is wait.”
Alice realized that there were still a number of things that could spoil her plans. Someone might discover Joyce and, while searching for her, happen to look in the hamper. The delivery man might not come, and the problem of how she was going to escape from the truck without being discovered still remained.
“Well, I got this far. I'll just have to let the future take care of itself.”
Having faith in anything other than that the very worst would happen wasn't something that happened to Alice often. Somehow the chain of events which led to her being in the laundry hamper had empowered her- given her hope. That hope was fleeting and easily converted into despair she knew all too well. Somehow she felt that this time it would be different.
In spite of the smell it was quite comfortable, buried among the sheets as she was. She began to grow tired and soon she was asleep. She was awakened by the sound of wheels rolling over asphalt. She was very quiet. She heard the whine of the lift gate and then the thump as it reached it's upper limit. She felt herself being rolled forward and then the sound of the roll up door closing. The truck started and the odors of exhaust fumes and gasoline were added to the reek of the soiled laundry.
The truck pulled away. The ride was quite bumpy. By that time Alice was beginning to cramp from her curled position. After a long drive, during which the truck stopped numerous times as more carts were added to the load, the truck finally reached it's destination. She heard the echoing rumble of a roll up door, and then the squeal of the roll up door on the truck. Carts were removed from the truck. Finally hers was rolled onto the lift-gate, lowered to the ground and wheeled away. After it came to a stop there was a long silence.
Two men stood by the carts talking.
“So wadda ya gunna do over the weekend Jack?”
“Me? I goda date wit' an angel. Believe you me. Built out ta here an' she really likes me.”
“No kiddin'. Hay Jack, she goda pal? I ain't doin' nothin' dis weekend but sittin' aroun' the house wit' the ol' lady an' that ain't no fun.”
“I dunno Marty. Double datin' ain't my thing but, for you I'll find out.”
“Thanks Jack. You're a pal. Hay wada bout dis laundry crap?”
“Aw man, it's too late ta unpack it now. Fugedit till Monday.”
“Right by me. Smells like dead people in der.”
“You odda see em. Lyin' around the hallways droolin' on they's shoes. Sure hope I don' end up like dat.”
“Me, I'd suck the ol' gun if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah pal. I suppose I would too.”
They both laughed and walked away.
Alice couldn't believe her luck. The whole weekend. She'd have plenty of opportunit to make her escape. It was just a matter of time until everyone was gone. She lifted the laundry away from her face and looked at her watch. 5:15. If I wait until 6:00 that should be enough time. I think, just to be sure I'll wait until 7.
I must have dozed off, she thought and yawned. She lifted the laundry away from her face. It was dark in the room except for one ceiling bulb which threw long shadows on the walls. After waiting a few minutes to assure herself that no one was around she pulled herself to a standing position. She grunted as she lifted the wheelchair up and over the lip of the hamper and set it carefully on the floor. She leaned it against the cart. Then, with considerable pain, she lifted her leg over the lip and stretched to reach the ground. She swung herself gingerly over the top and finally both feet were on the cold concrete.
“Oh my, that was horrible.” She said and looked around. The paint on the walls was a peeling, water stained, institutional green. The floor had yellow lines, and block printed signs designating different areas; one for full carts, one for fresh linen, one for empty carts. About 30 feet away a green door was set into the rough concrete wall. She unfolded the wheelchair and sat down.
“Oh, am I glad that's over. I certainly hope I can find some food. I'm very hungry.” She rolled toward the door. A mouse ran across her path and then, with a screech, a large black cat leaped at the mouse and caught it in mid flight. Alice got goose bumps. She hated mice. She proceeded to the door and opened it on a long, narrow hallway. Overhead a single fluorescent fixture buzzed, and one bulb flickered. She rolled down the hallway to the first door on the left. She opened it and turned on the light. It was a break room. Food and beverage machines lined one wall. Battered green painted metal tables, and chairs were scattered around the room. Proceeding down the hall she came to an office and went in. She rolled herself to the unpainted desk. It was littered with papers, an adding machine, and an old computer decorated with a decal of a topless woman in a hula skirt . Alice couldn't get her wheelchair behind the desk so she lifted herself to her feet. Supported by the desk, she shuffled around it and opened one drawer after another. In the left hand drawer she found a plastic cup with small change in it and a roll of bills. She stuffed the money in her pocket and climbed back in her chair.
Back in the break room she helped herself to a stale ham and cheese sandwich, and equally terrible coffee while she pondered her next move. She counted the money. There was four hundred and eight dollars in change and bills. She knew she wouldn't get far in her wheelchair so she decided to call a cab. The only place she could think of to go was the bus station. Where she would go from there remained to be seen.
On the street she felt nervous. It was very dark except for a lone streetlight at the end of the block. Luridly painted brick warehouses loomed over her. The graffiti scrawled on them filled her with foreboding.
“What if someone comes by. An old woman alone, there's no telling what they might do.” She mumbled to herself.
Soon, to her relief, a cab turned onto the street and pulled up next to her. The cabby, a short, round, unshaven man with a bald head, wearing a green leisure suit got out and came around the cab.
“Where to lady?” He asked in a surprisingly gentle voice.
“I'd like to go to the bus station please.” Alice said.
“Sure thing. Come on. I'll help you into the cab.”
After he settled her in the back seat he put the wheel chair in the trunk. As they rolled down the street Alice felt relieved. She made up her mind to go as far as two hundred and fifty dollars would take her. That would leave her enough money to eat,and for a room Whatever would happen then would happen.
“What are you doing in a rough neighborhood like this at this time of night lady?”
“Oh, I worked late. I just forgot the time and there I was”
“Yeah? Must love your work.”
“Yes, I love my work.”
Alice remembered the years spent as a salesgirl in the woman's clothing section of Blacks but not because she loved it. She was trapped there because of her kids. She didn't have any choice. Even though her parents were always there to help her out it was just one more cross to bear. She resented every minute of it.
As the entered the bus station she was surprised at the number of people there. She was also somewhat repulsed at how down and out most of them looked. It was as if bus travel attracted the very lowest class of people. In spite of the fact that Alice, in her flowered house dress, didn't look much better she looked upon the people she saw with the same distain she felt for the other inhabitants of the nursing home. That they were somehow beneath her.
“They're old,” she used to complain, as if she was any different.
As she approached the ticket window she had no idea where she was going. She didn't want to go south because that was where all the old people went. She didn't want to go east because it was too crowded. North was too cold, so West it was. She had heard so much about California over the years and it seemed nice; not too hot, not too cold. She imagined herself dipping her feet in the ocean, lying on the sand, sitting in a pleasant park while suntanned young people skated by.
“It will make me feel young again,” she said to herself.
“Where do you want to go lady?” The overweight chinese woman behind the counter asked. She had a slight accent and a mole on her cheek with three hairs growing out of it like tiny antenna. Alice was repulsed by it.
“I would like to go West. I have two hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Two hundred and fifty dollars? Two hundred and thirty eight dollars will get you to San Francisco.” The woman said.
“That's fine.” Alice replied.
“OK two hundred and thirty eight dollars it is.” She looked in her dog eared fare book and punched out a ticket on the battered computer on the desk.
Alice handed over the money. Two hundred and twenty eight dollars in bills and the rest in small change.
“The bus is leaving in one hour. Do you have any bags?”
“Traveling light huh?”
“Yes, I'm traveling light.”
“Well, good trip.”
On the bus she sat next to a young woman about the same age as her daughter. Her face was weathered. In her sheepskin jacket, jeans and cowboy boots she looked like a ranchers wife or daughter and Alice was curious. It was one of her childhood fantasies to live on a ranch and ride horses and she wondered about the woman.
Time enough to ask questions later, she thought .
Alice composed herself as best as she could, given how uncomfortable bus seats were and soon she was asleep. Her dreams were troubled as are the dreams of many reaching the end of their lives but at one point she sat a horse on the crest of a bluff, looking out on a vast prairie. Snow covered mountains framed the horizon. She woke with the memory still vivid in her mind.
“Oh my goodness.” She said.
“Is there something the matter?” the woman next to her asked. Alice couldn't see her face clearly in the dim light and she didn't want to switch on the overhead light for fear of annoying the other passengers.
“No, nothing is wrong. I was just dreaming.”
The woman laughed. “That happens to me a lot. I wake up from dreaming with the most vivid memories that sometimes it seems as if I'm still dreaming.”
“Yes, that is what it seemed like to me. One minute I was sitting on a horse and the next I'm here.”
“Oh, do you ride?”
“Oh no. I'm much too old but I always wanted to live on a ranch. I grew up in the city and the idea of animals and horses always seemed...well..exotic.”
“I know what you mean. I live on a ranch but sometimes I think I'm dreaming, when I think of how fortunate I am.”
“My name is Joan by the way.”
“My name is Alice.”
“Glad to meet you Alice. Say, you know what, let's turn on the light. I don't think it will bother anyone. Besides, I'd like us to be able to see each other.”
With that she clicked on the overhead light and adjusted it so it shone between them on the armrest.
“Now,” she said, “isn't that better?”
“Well yes it is. I was afraid to turn it on.”
“Oh shoot, worse things have happened on the bus. I remember one time there were these two guys, talking loudly. I asked them nicely to be quiet so I could sleep but they ignored me. After about the third time I finally yelled at them. Told them to shut up. The driver threatened to put me off the bus. It was the middle of nowhere.”
“Oh my, what happened?”
“Well, she said with a laugh, “I shut up. They never did stop talking. Some people right?”
Alice felt very disoriented. So much had happened in such a short space of time. After what seemed like an eternity in which nothing of merit had happened, her mind was so full from all the multi layered input that she didn't know quite what to make of it.
“Oh.” She said.
“You seem distracted. I hope I'm not talking too much. I tend to just go on and I can't help but feel that I bore people to death.”
Alice shook her head. “Oh no. I'm enjoying it. It's been so long since I've had anything new happen that I'm quite overwhelmed.”
“Where have you been.”
Alice hesitated, not sure if it was wise to confide in this perfect stranger. Then she came to a decision to just throw caution to the winds.
“I've been in a nursing home. Well actually it's an assisted living home but it might as well have been a jail.”
“Oh. How did that happen?”
“Like it usually happens. My children didn't have any time for me. I got old and they discarded me.”
“That's terrible. It certainly isn't like other countries. Why I was just recently in Mexico and so many of the families there have fathers & mothers, even grandparents living in the same home with them. Getting old there is so much different. They share their lives with those they love and are loved in return.”
“I'm afraid there hasn't been much love in my family. I think my children hate me.”
“Hate you? Why?”
“Oh it's my fault. I always resented them. I was married young. I was only 16. I had 3 children one after the other. Then my husband divorced me, and I had to raise them myself. I never had a chance to experience my youth, but it was cruel of me to take it out on them. I see that now, when it's too late to do anything about it.”
“It's never too late.”
“Oh yes dear. I'm afraid it is. Now I'm completely alone. I don't even have a home to go back to.”
“What do you mean?”
Alice was really concerned.
Should I tell her everything? She wondered.
She took a deep breath. Well why not? Sink or swim.
“What do you mean, “escaped”?
“Just that dear. I escaped from a nursing home. I ran away, took some money and got on this bus. I'm going to San Francisco. That's as far as the ticket takes me.”
“And then what?”
“I don't know.”
Joan laughed loudly. “Oops I'd better be quiet.” She said, making a zipping motion across her mouth. “I think that's just an amazing story. You ran away. How old are you?”
“How did you escape?”
“Well, I'm embarrassed to say I hit my nurse in the head and knocked her out. Then I hid in a laundry hamper, and got taken to a laundry service building. The week was over and everyone went home before they could unload my hamper. I climbed out, went through the office drawers, and found $400.00. Then I got a cab, got the bus, and here I am.”
“That's incredible. Never in my life have I done anything so brave. I hope when I'm 84 that if I'm in the same position your were I will have the courage to do something about it.”
“Well dear. It's not that I'm courageous. I just didn't have any choice. I wasn't ready to give up and die, at least not the way I would have died there.”
'What about your kids? You don't think they would have done something if you
would have told them how unhappy you were?”
“I'm afraid not, dear. As I said, they hate me. They have made it plain that other than paying the bills at the nursing home they want nothing to do with me.”She sighed.
“If only I had it to do over again but we never do, do we? Things happen and there's no going back. At least not this late.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I just don't know. I thought go West and let the cards fall as they may.”
“Yes, now if you'll excuse me, I'm very tired. I need to take a nap.”
Joan turned out the light and laid back in her seat. The story Alice had told her seemed so tragic but yet so courageous. She couldn't help but imagine what she might do in the same circumstances. She found it hard to come to any conclusion. She thought of her own mother who never had an opportunity to grow old. Instead she died of pneumonia when Joan was only 8 years old and she was raised by her father. Growing up on a ranch had taught her independence and a sense of accomplishment but was that enough? She thought of her own relationship with her father who was nearing ninety. She knew she would have never dreamed of putting him in a home, even though he was at times very trying. She just couldn't have done it. She knew she wasn't good company for him, and he spent a lot of time alone. Even though he had a home, and someone who loved him, she knew he was lonely for someone his age to talk to.
If only mom would have lived. They could have lived out their lives together
instead of turning out like it did.
The more she thought about it the more she felt that there was some idea forming that she couldn't quite grasp. She decided to go to sleep and see how she felt in the morning.
And so they both dreamed. Alice of riding a horse in a seemingly endless prairie, and Joan, who dreamed of her mother, and then of her father, and then of Alice, and then...
Joan opened her eyes and stared at the overhead compartment. She knew what she was going to do. She turned to look at Alice, who was still asleep, her mouth open, gently snoring.