When people say they’re haunted, it usually conjures up images of ghosts and wraiths. But that’s not how it is with me. Six words, a beard, and the tap of a hand haunt my days and nights.
I’m probably as ordinary as a person can get, living a typically mundane life. One particularly innocent day, my client asked me to run a few papers by a local nursing home. Easy? Sure. Safe? Not so much.
I was running a tad behind schedule when I pulled into the parking lot—a totally nondescript building with a colorful banner emblazoned with “We’re so glad to see you!” rippling in a cold, February breeze. Turning from that cheery message to the field, not a half-mile away, I encountered a decided mood-changer—a prison yard.
Brushing dark comparisons aside, I hurried inside and ran smack into a large common dining room. Old folks milled about, aimlessly, it seemed. I spotted a nurse-type in her flowered top and waved my manila folder stuffed with my client’s “important papers.” A quick explanation and the flowered top flew off in hot pursuit of the needed signatures.
So, I just stood there, looking about, pretending I wasn’t looking about. It got awkward—real quick. I perused the menu, listened to the laugh track playing on a large screen television, and studied the “Report Abuse Here” sign. I turned around and surveyed the room. Any sign of abuse?
A couple old guys slumped at a table, one with his head down and his eyes closed, though his legs were in perpetual motion, the other chattered away undaunted by his less-than-enthusiastic audience. Several figures slept in front of the television, while a young man cleared tables nearby. Several old gals, the lively ones of the bunch, were looking my way. Oh no. One, with a crippled leg, limped toward me. Lord, did she think she knew me? What did she want? Where could I hide?
Too late. She’d seen me. Stretching out her hand, she reached for my arm. Would she fall? Tackle me? I searched wildly for a nurse, an aide; frankly, anyone under seventy would have been a Godsend at that moment.
I watched her hand reach out—and she patted my arm. I managed a squeak. “Need help?” After a brief smile, she limped on, her gaze focused on some mission up ahead.
“Nope. Just glad I can still get around.” She sounded like she meant it too. I looked at my arm, where she had patted me. Had she seen my panic? Was she comforting me?
The flowered-shirt nurse trotted up, a satisfied smile alerting me to her success. “The director said you should come back next week for—” I hardly heard the next words. Next week? Come back? Here? Dandy. I marched to the double doors, shoved the handle, and promptly set off every alarm in the place.
The following week was as busy as a spring tornado, but everywhere I went I saw that hand, felt that gentle pat, and heard those bloody, comforting words “Just glad….” Life is a mystery. I thought I had accepted that long ago. But now, I was a mystery to myself. When the manila folder was thrust unceremoniously back into my hands, I drove back to that parking lot overlooking the prison yard.
Squaring my shoulders like a soldier facing combat, I marched myself through the doors, breezing right by some old guy sitting in a wheelchair by the front glass doors, his gaze searching the parking lot. Must be waiting for someone. Maybe a son with grandkids—something like that. Sure.
In a moment, I stood before the throng of elderlies, searched for the flower-topped nurse, but instead a large man in blue lumbered over. Taking my manila envelope like a precious charge, he snail-paced away. Okay—so what’s on the menu today? This week? Any card catalogs I could peruse? I skirted by the Elderly Abuse notice.
Weakening, my gaze traveled the room. Before I realize what I’d done, I had stepped further into the room. A woman on my right sat at a table and gazed up at me, her eyes wide and frightened. Was she afraid of me?
I looked away—fast.
A man rocked in his chair—back and forth—while another woman talked and talked though not a soul was listening. The woman on the right cleared her throat. She leaned in, shoulders hunched, using every bit of courage to speak. Without warning, her gaze plunged into my own.
“If you’d just give me the key—I could get out of here.”
My heart stopped. Or it jumped to my throat. It certainly wasn’t where it was supposed to be, doing its job. I tried to say something, but no words would form on my lips. Desperate, she repeated her plea.
“If you’d just give me the key—I could get out of here.”
Lord have mercy, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I met the man in blue half way across the room and bolted for the door. The old man didn’t even flinch at the breeze from my passing, his gaze stayed fixed ahead, scanning the parking lot.
I spent the next week trying to rid myself of the echo in my mind, “If you’d just give me the key….” And the feel of my empty chest, where my heart should have been, the pat of a gentle hand, and the horror of knowing that the man in blue was going to wheel that old guy back to the common room—alone.
By the middle of the week, I needed serious therapy. But as that was not an option, I confided my hauntings to a friend of mine, Sammy, Sam for short.
Sam is a dear girl—woman—person, I suppose. In her own way. She listened patiently enough, and then she began her lament. It’s the government’s lack of decency, a selfish bunch of…causes all our troubles, religious zealots, insensitive relatives, you name it—Sam had a name to blame. When I finally admitted to myself that she wasn’t listening, I went home to the tune of “If you’d just give me the key….”
In fact, I never intended to go back to that nursing home. But in some kind of Christmas Carol twist, my client discovered one more signature was needed.
Fate, sure enough.
This time I came prepared. I ducked my head and shielded my eyes from the prison yard; I whizzed by the old man by the front door; I ignored the menu and practically knocked over a scruffy bearded kid who loped along to the center of the room. Flower-shirt was back, and she didn’t need to ask. She just plucked the manila folder from my grasp and suggested I sit and enjoy the live music before she trotted off.
The kid who looked like he had slept on a park bench all night unslung a guitar off his back and sat down in front, smiling, nodding at people like he was having a good time. Joking even!
I leaned against the wall, prepared for nothing. The kid’s dark, lanky hair, tattered jeans and threadbare jacket told their own story. He sang country stuff mostly, though he’d stop to answer a question or change tunes at a request. He and the old folks exchanged teasing jibes. Obviously, he’d been here before.
I gazed around the room. Most of the folks had gathered around. The sleepers stayed put—in their own worlds. Some folks rocked, some stared, a few drooled as was their way. But the woman from last week smiled up at the kid through shining eyes. No mention of a key. And the front-door guy had wheeled himself in, one foot tapping away.
Suddenly the manila envelope was thrust into my hands. But I wasn’t ready to leave. Why? I don’t even like country music.
It’s been months now, and I’ve never gone back. But I am haunted, I tell you—haunted by a gentle pat and a scruffy young man—with a key.