Miriam didn't particularly have an affinity for the elderly, but this was better than the alternative. At least, that's what she kept telling herself as she wandered up and down the hallways, white Ked sneakers squeaking on the tile floor, waving hello and exchanging pleasantries with the people who had wound up in this assisted living home.
25 hours of community service, or as she had put it to her boyfriend on the phone, "Twenty-five motherfucking hours of goddamn shitty community service." He might have been a bit more sympathetic had her call not come from a local bondsman's office, as his secretary paced in front of the wall-mounted phone like an overanxious cat waiting for a meal while Miriam exploded to her boyfriend over the injustice of her plea bargain. "All I did was fucking hit that stupid bitch, just one goddamn time!" Joseph (the boyfriend) mumbled something soothing over the phone line and hung up to go back to work: he worked in construction, and this sort of thing was sorely frowned upon.
Miriam was 12 hours in, though, and felt the halfway point drawing near. She tugged the handle of a mop bucket toward her and grinned falsely at the family members who had come to visit their aging grandmother, or mother, or aunt ... whoever it was. This was better than cleaning a park or sorting clothes at a Goodwill, but she wished she'd been able to tolerate the animal shelter. She wrinkled her nose at the memory of the cat dander, so thick in the air you could see it floating around like a dust mite. Wheeling the mop bucket down the hall behind her like an unruly toddler, she made it to the end of the hallway and began to mop her way down it, stepping carefully over tile so she didn't mess up her work.
"Hullo?" the voice was so faint and hoarse she thought she'd imagined it, but then it came again, from an open doorway behind her. "Hullo there?" the woman said softly, peering anxious at Miriam from the safety of her apartment. "Oh dear, could you please come here?" she beckoned for Miriam with what she felt were clawed hands, an angel of death. Suppressing a shudder, Miriam plopped the mop back into the bucket and carefully maneuvered into the woman's quarters.
It was sparsely kept, very white and spartan in appearance. A few coffee mugs sat on the counter tops, along with Sudoku puzzle books and crossword puzzles scrawled through in pencil. Keeping their memories on the straight and narrow, that was what the no-nonsense matron of the place - she'd long-since forgotten her name - had said as she gave Miriam the tour. This woman must be particularly sharp, she thought, turning to shut the door behind her.
"What can I do for you, ma'am?" she asked, stepping toward the old woman. Grey ran through her hair, but not too much - there were still faint strands of blonde. Thought she stood a bit stooped, she was largely not all that hunched or, frankly, old-looking. Miriam gazed at her face until the woman looked up from her feet to her, wringing her hands.
"They forgot my Melvin's lunch." she said softly, glancing anxiously at her kitchen table. "I eat by myself, it's all well and good, but my poor Melvin, he needs to eat, too." she looked immediately down at her feet again - soft, baby blue slippers - and clucked her tongue, almost imperceptive. "He will be so cross if I don't get him his lunch." Miriam glanced around the apartment, her gaze falling into the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom ... but no sign of anyone.
"Ma'am ... what is your name, again?" she asked, feeling rude all of a sudden.
"Carolyn. Carolyn Rice." the woman said to her slippers.
"Mrs. Rice, I don't seem to see Melvin anywhere." Miriam said, taking a harder look at the living room to make sure he hadn't folded himself into the armchair by the television. "Is he resting? I can get him some lunch but perhaps it should wait until he's here?"
Apparently she had said the wrong thing, as a darkness passed over Carolyn's face. Slowly she raised her head before making direct, unflinching eye contact with Miriam, who felt scolded before Carolyn ever opened her mouth.
"My Melvin," she said crossly, "is right here, and I am tired of you people suggesting otherwise. Just look at him!" she gestured angrily to her side, toward one of the chairs at the kitchen table - totally empty, save a threadbare cotton bathrobe draped over it.
"Oh," Miriam said, unsure how to react to this turn of events. "Yes, right. Of course. Let me go get your lunch, Melvin," she said, addressing the bathrobe. Carolyn sniffed approvingly, now fixated on her slippers again. Miriam slipped out the door and grabbed her mop, wheeling it behind her toward the staff room at a frentic page.
"What the shit," she said, pinwheeling into the doorway and sending the mop bucket rolling into her ankle, "is up with that lady in 109?" the director - she wished she could have remembered the woman's name - sat at the table, picking the crust off a sandwich and glancing up at Miriam through cats-eye glasses, placed down the bridge of her nose.
"By that admission," she put down her sandwich, "I assume you're speaking about Mrs. Rice?"
"Yes!" crowed Miriam, maneuvering the mop bucket into its place in the closet and dumping the dirty water down a grate as she spoke. "She thinks her fucking husband is there, and he's not there! And she wants lunch for him! What a maroon. Is her husband in the game room, or something? I need to get him. Old people are so quiet they don't even notice when they're alone!" she laughed as she wiped her palms on her scrub pants, shutting the closet door to look into the very stern face of the director.
"Mrs. Rice," she began, "has been a widow for three years now."
Miriam wasn't sure how to react, and gaped a bit, waiting for the director to respond.
"Here is a lunch for him," she pushed a sandwich wrapped in a paper towel toward Miriam, "and just serve it like you would any other resident." Miriam took the sandwich, shaking a bit, and made her way back down the hallway toward room 109 once again. Edging the door open with her hip, she called out into the stillness:
"Mrs. Rice? Mr. Rice?"
"I'm in the bathroom," called Mrs. Rice wheezily from the back of the apartment, "but Melvin is still at the table! Please just give him his lunch, he must be starving, the poor dear."
At a bit of a loss, Miriam unwrapped the sandwich, laying it out on its napkin. She filled a plastic cup with water from the tap and laid it beside the sandwich, picking at her cuticles until the bathroom door opened and Mrs. Rice lumbered out. She glanced up from her slippers just long enough to see the kitchen table, and her face broke out in a jubilant smile.
"Peanut butter and jelly! Oh Melvin, your favorite!" she sat down across from the sandwich at the table and began to pick at a spare thread on her slippers. Not ready to leave, Miriam cleared her throat.
"Carolyn, do they often tell you they can't see Melvin?" Mrs. Rice nodded, never looking up.
"Oh, yes. They tell me he's not here and they can help me, that it is okay for me to be alone now, but I'm not. He's right here, he's always with me, my Melvin." Miriam could hear the tears edge their way into her voice. "I won't let anyone tell me any different."
"Fuck," Miriam muttered under her breath. Carolyn's eyebrows shot up, but her gaze never left the floor. Leaning against the counter, Miriam spoke again.
"Tell me about him? He seems like the strong, silent type."
Carolyn Rice's face lit up and she peered upward toward Miriam, tears shining on her cheeks.
"Oh, yes. He always was. My Melvin is a crown jewel. Did you hear about the blizzard of '59?" Miriam shook her head no, and Carolyn placed her hands on her knees, jiggling them excitedly. "Well let me just tell you!"
Mrs. Rice spoke animatedly for upwards of three hours about her Melvin, occasionally pausing to send a grateful smile the way of the bathrobe draped over the chair. She never seemed to mind that the sandwich had not moved, nor the cup emptied, and Miriam stood fixated by every word. Glancing at the wall clock, though, she noticed it was nearing 4:30 pm: almost time for their dinner, and time for her to sign out.
"Carolyn," she said gently, reaching out to touch the woman's shoulder. "he is a wonderful man, god damn it, and you're right. Never let anyone else tell you differently, okay? I have to go now, but I'll be back. I promise." The old woman's hand reached over to Miriam's arm and she squeezed it affectionately, nodding.
As Miriam walked toward the exit, the director looked up from a computer situated in the lobby, her eyebrows tilted up.
"I trust you met Melvin?" she asked. Miriam didn't know what else to say, how to react, so she just nodded.
"Yeah," she mumbled softly. "he's gotta fuckin' be there, somewhere." She tightened her grip on her car keys, and headed out into the sunlight.