On the rolling table beside my grandfather’s bed is one of those books about the secret symbols on the dollar bill, and I grit my teeth. Ever since I told him that I wasn’t worried if Freemasons were taking over the banks, his former profession has been off limits as a conversation topic. Not as reading material, apparently.
“There’s an office behind the nurses’ station—did you see it?” He lets me hug him, but he has no pleasantries to exchange and he’s not interested in the minutiae of my drive. “They keep all our files in those notebooks.”
“Do you want me to help you into your chair?” I ask him. My mother and my aunts moved the recliner from his house, but I never see him sit in it anymore. His preferred seat is his motorized scooter, hands on the handlebar like he’s just paused before buzzing off to the next meeting. He waves me away.
“The control panel’s in there—that’s why the door is behind the desk. There’s only one man allowed in that office, and he reads all our files. Then he decides.”
I roll the table aside and sit on his bed. I still might get him into the easy chair. But it faces the TV, and at this hour it’s news or soaps. The news will agitate him and the soaps will remind him of my grandmother, which will agitate him.
I sit in the easy chair. “So what’s he deciding?”
“Don’t you ever wonder how you die?” my grandfather asks. He fingers the buttons that accelerate the scooter but doesn’t push any of them down. “People say things like ‘his heart stopped working,’ but what stopped it? Why that particular moment? When do the numbers add up?”
I can’t think of a way to change topics without seeming insensitive, but this is like watching a car stuck on train tracks after you’ve heard the whistle blow. “Does the exact mechanism really matter?”
“He’s the one. He’s got all the information there in that office, and at night he can just—” he mimes flipping a switch. “I can hear things at night. They walk down these halls . . . “
He stands up and starts fiddling with his belt. Is he? Yes, he is going to drop trou right here in the middle of the room. He’s soiled the diaper before even realizing he needed the toilet, and now he’s so upset he can only act; to speak the words is almost as humiliating as the fact that he needs help with his pants.
I rip the sides of the diaper to get it off and help him into the bathroom, and then hover outside the half-open door. Maybe I can do what he needs next without him having to ask. He gets himself dressed again and leans on both sides of the door frame. I offer an arm so he can get back to the scooter.
Now a nurse pokes his head in the room from the hallway door, which is wide open. “Oh, look, you have company!” Everyone who works here enunciates in jovial, loud tones.
My grandfather plasters on a smile and introduces me. “This is Loretta,” he tells the man.
“I’m Kate,” I tell him.
“You can stay for lunch if you’d like,” the nurse tells me before sailing back down the hall. I smile as if this is news. My grandfather motions to close the door after him.
“He’s usually the night nurse,” he mutters. “He’s a little—” and he tips his hand, fingers outstretched, like a rocking boat. “He comes into our rooms at night and watches us.”
“Aren’t they supposed to do that? They’re making rounds.” I wonder if I should report the pants or the nurse stuff to my aunts. Who knows what he’ll tell them about my visit?
“I can hear the clicking at night. They think I’m asleep, but I’m not.” He clenches his fist and wraps his thumb over the top, pushing imaginary buttons again. “I’ll figure it out.”
I walk down the middle of the wide corridor toward the door, leaving the lanes next to the wall for the old ladies pushing walkers. Through the glass doors there’s a bit of parking lot, then a meadow of untended grass, each blade now held rigid by slivers of frost. Where the corridors join is the nurses’ station. I’m supposed to sign out. When I set the clipboard back on the counter, I hear the echo clatter down the hall.
The clerk on duty smiles at me. “You look just like Loretta,” she says.
“Thanks,” I lie.