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The Walker

by Carole Bellacera

Thanksgiving dinner was on the table.  With her family gathered around her, Pam Beauman sat and stared at the feast, knowing she wouldn't be able to eat--that the food wouldn't get past the hard lump in her throat.  But even with that realization, she automatically filled her plate as the dishes were passed around.

"Mom, the turkey is delicious!  So moist."

Pam acknowledged her daughter's compliment with a vacant smile.  Her fork tines played in a hill of rice, mixing giblet gravy into the fluffy white grains.  A wayward green pea had rolled into the rice, and Pam found herself moving all of them over and into the mixture.

Conversation milled around her.  Pam paid no attention.

Now, the sweet potatoes.  The orange vegetable gave an interesting contrast to the mass of white and green on her plate.  What else?  Oh, the cranberry sauce.  So red...rather Christmasy.  She mixed it in with the rice, peas and sweet potatoes.

"Mom!  What are you doing?"

Pam looked up to see three pairs of curious eyes staring at her.  Her fork clattered to the table, shattering the sudden silence in the room.  Pam knew she should laugh it off, make a little joke about how holidays can make you go off the deep end.  But for some reason, she couldn't summon her voice.  Helplessly, she gazed back at her family.  After a moment, she rose from her place at the table and left the room.  The children's anxious voices followed her.

"Mom, what's wrong?"

"Where are you going?"

At the closet door in the hallway, she heard Mort's voice as she pulled on her winter coat.

"It's okay.  I think Mom needs to be alone for a while.  You know, Thanksgiving is a rough holiday for her this year."

"Oh, yeah,"  said Valerie, in a subdued voice.  "I forgot about Grandma."

Outside in the cold November air, Pam looked up at the threatening pewter sky, feeling a few stray drops of rain splattering onto her face.  She knew she should go back in for her umbrella, but she just couldn't do it.  She couldn't go back in there.

Instead, she walked toward the Metro station.  Perhaps on the subway, some of her tension would melt away, and she could become a wife and mother again.  It was time to let go of the child inside, if only she could discover how.

The Metro train was almost empty.  Most people were with their loved ones, gathered around dinner tables laden with three times more food than they could possibly eat.  Thanksgiving Day!  They should change it to Glutton Day.

Up until last year, Pam had enjoyed the holiday as much as any other American.  But that all changed with a single phone call from her sister early on Thanksgiving Day last year.

"Mom passed away this afternoon, Pam,"  Shirley said, her voice choked with tears.

Pam's first reaction was confusion.  Afternoon?  It was only seven o'clock in the morning.  But then she remembered the six hour time difference between Hawaii and Georgia. 

"It must've happened fast.  The nurse said she was fine when she took her Thanksgiving dinner into her,"  Shirley went on.  "A half-hour later, she was dead.  Heart attack, they think."

Pam's second reaction was guilt.  "I should've been there."

Shirley said all the right things.  "No one expected you to be here.  You can't help it that you live so far away."  And the ultimate guilt-absolver.  "She wouldn't have known you were here, anyway."

Her words were meant to be comforting.  But Pam saw them for the platitudes they were.  She knew the truth.  She'd never been there for Mom.  Why would it be any different at the end of her life?

Now, sitting on the train speeding through the dark underworld of Washington DC, she couldn't banish the image that had been haunting her for a year now--the one of Mom slumped in her bed, dying alone in a nursing home, with her Thanksgiving turkey growing cold in front of her.

 ***

It snowed the night before Thanksgiving this year, and Adam and Valerie were thrilled because they hadn't seen snow in ages.  Mort's job with the Department of Defense had kept them in Hawaii for four years.  And before that, it had been California.  Pam was surprised the kids remembered snow at all.  She remembered a time when she, too, was fascinated by the white stuff.   That all changed the winter she'd turned seventeen.

Shirley had already married and left home, so it had been just the two of them in the small house where she'd grown up--she and Mom.  The divorce had done something weird to Mom, Pam had always thought.  She was a basketcase of worry.  And overprotective as hell!  Pam just couldn't handle her incessant worrying.

 A freak snow squall had rolled into northern Georgia.   It had been only a few inches, but Mom had gone nuts when Pam informed her that the weather wasn't going to stop her from going out to the football game with Chad as planned.   With Mom's dire warnings ringing in her ears, she'd jumped into Chad's GTO, and immediately forgot about everything except having fun.  After the game, she'd gone with Chad to a party.  It had never occurred to her to call home to say she'd be late.  And when she'd finally walked in after midnight, Mom was waiting in the hallway, her eyes tear-stained and swollen.

"Where have you been?"  she demanded, her voice shrill with anxiety.

An illogical fury swept over Pam.  "What are you?  My parole officer?"

Her mother's slap was stinging and so sudden that Pam only reacted.  Her own hand flew through the air and collided with the flesh of her mother's taut cheekbone. The impact sounded like a dead fish flopping onto a concrete slab.  Their eyes locked, Pam's reflecting the horror of what she'd done, her mother's wounded, like a doe that had been struck through a hunter's sight.

Oh, Mom, I'm sorry.

But the words were never spoken aloud--only in her mind.  When she finally whispered the words, it was too late.  Her mother had turned and walked away, closing her bedroom door with a soft thud.

She'd never spoken about the incident, and Pam couldn't summon the courage to do so, either.  But from that day on, she would forever hold that image in her mind.  Mom, dressed in an old bathrobe, her feet in fuzzy lavender slippers, plodding away, her shoulders slumped, head bowed.  And then, the emphatic finality of that closed bedroom door.  Why, why hadn't she followed her?  Begged her forgiveness?  Pleaded that she hadn't meant to hit her.  But instead, Pam had turned to her room where she'd undressed and crawled into bed, weeping into her pillow.

***

Across from her on the subway sat a heavy black man, his nose buried in a newspaper.  On the floor near his worn work boots lay a child's red vinyl umbrella, still wet from the rain.  Such a small umbrella for such a big man, Pam thought.  And suddenly she was overwhelmed with such a stark feeling of sadness that she could barely draw in a breath.

The train pulled into a station and the heavy black man grabbed the umbrella,  lumbered to his feet, and shuffled through the doors.  Pam watched him trudge away.  Where was he bound with his little red umbrella?  To a home and a family?  She hoped so, but somehow, she didn't believe it.  He wore loneliness on his face the same way Pam wore the heaviness in her heart.  As if it were welded there.

The train moved on, and she felt herself lulled to drowsiness with the rhythmical music of the tracks.   When the train pulled into a station, she jerked upright and stared in confusion out the window at the sign on the platform. 

The Soldier's and Airman's Home.  The name rang a bell in her mind.  Wasn't that the place where the church was delivering fruit baskets?  Of course, that had been early this morning and none of them would be there now.  Yet, she found herself standing up and stepping through the subway doors.

Sometime while she'd been on the Metro, the rain had turned to snow.  Pam walked toward the retirement home, her face lifted to feel the comforting kiss of the huge fluffy flakes against her skin.  She'd forgotten how much she loved its pristine caress.

The building crouched on top of manicured lawns, now frosted with a light layer of snow.  Pam climbed the great slabs of stairs leading to the entrance.  Inside, the acrid smell of antiseptic assaulted her nostrils, mixed with something else, something indefinable.  Old age?  Death?  Or simply loneliness?

She found herself on the women's ward, but didn't know if it was by design or accident.  The blare of television sets emanated from open doorways, their sounds competing with each other.

Now what?  Her feet had stopped moving.  Her eyes fastened on the tiny figure of a woman walking toward her at an incredible rate of speed for a person of her years.  Her iron gray hair was pulled back into a top-knot and fell in a long ponytail to her waist.  She wore a pink quilted robe that appeared to have seen too many wash cycles.  Her stick-like legs were encased in striped flannel pajamas and on her feet were scruffy pink slippers, like the ones Mom had worn that night.  The woman passed by Pam, her glassy eyes never veering from her forward course.  Pam turned and watched her walk on.  Obviously, she had somewhere to get to, and no time to waste doing it.

"Hello!  Are you looking for someone in particular?"

Pam turned toward the voice and found herself looking into a lively pair of blue eyes.  Sitting on a small sofa near a water fountain, a beautiful white-haired woman smiled up at her.  Before Pam had a chance to respond to her question, she spoke again.  "Are you visiting relatives?"

Pam found her voice.  "No, not exactly."

"Well, never-mind.  It looks like you could use a rest.  Here, share my sofa."

"Thank you."  Pam sat down on the edge of the couch, feeling uncomfortable.  Whatever was she doing in this place?

"I'm Victoria Norbert."  The woman held out an aristocratic but frail hand.  "And you are...?"

"Pam Beauman."

The pony‑tailed woman had reached the end of the hallway and was turning back toward them.

"I'm afraid I ate too much turkey today, as usual,"  Victoria said.  "They really feed us well here."

"I didn't have any,"  Pam said.  "I mean, I had some...but I couldn't eat."

"It's probably for the best.  We tend to over-do it on holidays, don't we?"

The pony‑tailed woman passed by again.  Her pace hadn't slackened.

"What's she doing?"  Pam asked.

"Oh, you mean Agnes?  We call her 'The Walker.'  She does that all day.  Never speaks to anyone.  Just paces the hallways all day.  No one knows how she does it."

"Doesn't she have any family to come and visit her?"

Victoria shook her head.  "Not that I know of.  I've never seen her with a visitor."

"What about you?"  Their eyes met, and Pam couldn't hold back her tears.  "Didn't anyone visit you today?  On Thanksgiving?"

A bittersweet smile appeared on Victoria's lips.  "There's only my two grandsons, but they both live in California.  Kind of far to visit.  My only daughter died several years ago."

"I'm sorry,"  Pam murmured.

"It was a terrible tragedy, but I've reconciled myself to it.  What else is there to do?"

They were silent for a long moment.  Then Pam spoke again,  "I guess, while she was still here...she was a good daughter?  I mean, she probably didn't neglect you or...oh, I don't know what I'm trying to say."

Victoria's sharp blue eyes assessed her.  "Well, she didn't dog my footsteps if that's what you mean.  She had her own life, her husband, two college-aged boys.  We saw each other when we could.  No, I wouldn't say she neglected me."

"I did,"  Pam said.  "I neglected my mother.  She died a year ago today.  And I was half-way around the world."

"Military?"

"DOD.  Same thing, pretty much."

Victoria Norbert nodded.  "Yes.  I was a military wife for twenty-two years.  Love for a military man can take you away from others you love.  It happens."

Pam swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the lump that seemed to be embedded in her throat.

Victoria reached out a hand and covered Pam's.  "You're a young lady who looks like she needs a friend."

Young lady.  Pam began to laugh at the absurdity of being called a young lady, but when it came out, it was more like an anguished cry.  Victoria reached over and drew Pam into her frail arms.  The sobs welled up and exploded into a volcano of emotion against the lacy yellow sweater of the elderly stranger.  She was thankful that Victoria Norbert didn't speak; the woman seemed to sense that holding her close was all she needed just now.

After a while, the tears slowed.  Embarrassed, Pam pulled away.  "I'm sorry.  I don't know why I fell apart like that."

"No,"  Victoria said, her lined face gentle and soothing.  "You're not sorry.  How can you apologize for doing something you've needed to do for a long time?"

Pam didn't speak, but she knew the woman spoke the truth.  In the silence, she heard the swish-swish of Agnes' slippers against the linoleum.  "The Walker" passed in front of them, her eyes fixed upon her unknown destination, her feet moving purposely in getting to it.

Victoria's eyes followed her.  "You know, the guilt we feel for things we've done...or left undone in the past...is like that.  It drives us in a direction that offers no solution.  We keep walking, but we'll never get there."

For a long time, Pam and Victoria sat and watched Agnes walk up and down the hallway.  Finally, Victoria said,  "I'll bet your family is wondering where you are."

Pam stood up, wiping her eyes with a tissue she'd found in her purse.  "Mrs. Norbert, would you mind if I stopped in sometimes.  Just to say hello?"

Victoria Norbert smiled.  It was the most beautiful face Pam had ever seen.  "God bless you, child.  I'd love the company."

Outside, the snow was falling harder.  Pam walked toward the Metro station.  Her empty stomach gurgled and suddenly, a turkey sandwich didn't sound half-bad.

In the train home, the music of the tracks mingled with a half-forgotten song in Pam's memory from one of Joan Baez's albums.  

"Old trees just grow stronger

Old rivers grow wider every day.

But old people just grow lonesome,

Waiting for someone to say

Hello in there."

The song had always made her cry, and now, just thinking about the lyrics, she felt the familiar burn of tears in her eyes.  But that was okay, for these tears were healing.  And softly, she began to hum.

 


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