By C. I. Lopez
All that Southern charm finally got to me. When my boyfriend Jason took me to meet his parents in Charleston, I loved the beauty of the city and the old colonial homes upon arrival. Still, by the beginning of the planned two-week visit, I’d heard enough southern drawl and praise for Robert E. Lee, the Confederate flag, and the Jim Crow laws to last me a lifetime. I’m a Yankee, through and through, and all that misplaced gentility was too much for me. It struck me that they were still living in the past while I am firmly anchored in the present. When Jason went to his room to change clothes for dinner, I quickly packed up my bag and drove my rental car away without saying goodbye. I drove straight through the night to New York non stop.
It’s where I live, and where I met Jason. I never realized how much difference there was between a true Yankee and a Southern aristocrat. I know it would never work out between us. Not that Jason is not a nice person, and his family is charming, but our ways of looking at life are miles apart. The difference didn’t seem so apparent when we were both at the University in New York, but when he returned to his home in the deep South, Jason reverted to his original self.
There were already fifteen messages from Jason on my phone by the time I arrived in New York City. I had turned off the phone while driving. It was time to write him a sweet message, thanking him and his family for their genteel hospitality and explaining to Jason that as a couple, we were not going to make it. I explained that it wasn’t anything he or his lovely family did, but rather my own inability to accept the huge differences in our upbringing and our way of thinking regarding the past and the future. I hoped that would put an end to the relationship.
As I unpacked, I remembered how Jason’s mother, Fiona, looked at all my dark suits with disgust and insisted I wear her daughter’s flowered billowy dresses. They were beautiful, but they were not me. Like I told Jason, I’ll never be a Southern Belle.
Back in my jeans and black sweater, I ran upstairs to Diana’s apartment on the third floor—one floor up from mine. We both lived in an apartment house in Manhattan. The main door to the building requires visitors to ring the apartment they want to visit before being allowed entrance. Then, of course, we have our own security metal doors with multiple locks on each apartment. I love living in Manhattan, and I always feel safe in this environment.
As I was unloading my luggage in front of my apartment, I noticed the shadow of a man, which made me feel curiously uneasy for the first time since I’d moved into my apartment. He stood out because his attire was so different from what one would see in that area of New York City. He was casually leaning on the wall of the building next to mine, lighting a cigarette, looking like a character from ‘Crocodile Dundee’, a film about a crocodile hunter in Australia, which made me smile. I didn’t give it another thought as I hurried inside, happy to be home again.
I was gone for a week, and was sure some bills arrived in the mail during the time I’d been gone. Diana and I were only acquaintances, but we trusted each other to pick up each other’s mail when one of us was going to be out of town, before some other resident might steal it looking for some cash. It was an arrangement we’d had for some time.
Diana was a widow, a decade older than myself. We weren’t exactly friends, but we enjoyed each other’s company. We were both women living alone as independent professionals. Diana had been a professor at the State University until her husband’s tragic death a year ago. I was studying for my graduate degree in Psychology and working part-time at a coffee shop. After Seth’s death, Diana received a considerable amount of money from his insurance and his pension. She decided to retire from teaching.
Now she enjoyed spending time at the local nursing home as a volunteer. When I asked her how she felt about doing that kind of work, Diana told me that it was fascinating to listen to the stories of the old people, each one was a book full of treasures. They all enjoyed telling stories of when they were young, pulling out pictures of bright young women with a faint resemblance to the soft faces filled with deep lines and paper-thin skin. Yet, their souls were filled with memories of a time gone by.
The last day I saw Diana, she said to me: “It seems to me that the older people get, the less interest they have in the world around them, and in the present, and so the more they want to think about the past and talk about it.”
I remained silent, letting the thought settle in my brain.
Diana continued, “The people I talk with at the home are ancient, and I see why they might not want to think of the present. For most of them, their lives are filled with health problems or money problems, and they’re getting weaker every day. Which made the past a better place to be, especially with someone happy to listen.”
“Are you doing this work because you find it satisfying?” I asked her that afternoon.
Diana’s face beamed as she told me how she enjoyed listening to the life stories of each of those people. “Each life is a piece of history,” she told me enthusiastically. “Yes,” she answered my question. “I find my work at the nursing home very satisfying.”
As I approached the third floor on my way to Diana’s apartment later that morning, I was stopped by a police officer who was stringing Crime Scene tape around her apartment. I saw paramedics open the door of Diana’s apartment carrying a gurney with what appeared to be a dead body, covered completely with a green cloth. I asked the officer what had happened.
“Apparently, the resident of apartment 301 fell and died of a brain hemorrhage. An unfortunate accident, ma’am.”
“No,” I said, refusing to accept that Diana could be gone forever. “There must be some mistake. Are you sure it’s the resident of apartment 301? She wasn’t an old woman and was very steady on her feet,” I felt a little foolish when the two paramedics asked me to step aside as they carried the gurney with Diana’s body right past me. I stood back in shock as I watched.
“Yes, ma’am,” the officer responded in his no-nonsense way. “The coroner who inspected her body said it must have happened last night. Maybe she was walking in the dark and lost her footing.”
“Who discovered her body?” I asked, aware that she didn’t have frequent visitors.
Before the officer could answer my question, a man’s deep voice spoke from behind me. “Did you know the deceased?”
Caught by surprise, I turned to see a middle-aged man wearing a detective badge. “If you mean Diana, we were neighbors; acquaintances. I just returned from a trip and was coming to pick up my mail, which Diana usually keeps for me, as I do for her when she’s out of town.”
“May I ask where you were, Miss?”
“I was in Charleston visiting my boyfriend’s family.”
“I see, and you just returned early this morning. Can that be verified?”
I was taken back by his question but remembered that I still had Jason’s phone calls in my phone, and I told him that he could look at my phone, which he politely refused.
“I take it you live in this apartment house,” he said, pulling a notebook and pen out of a pocked and jotting something down. He wanted to know my name and my apartment number, which I gave to him reluctantly. I was beginning to feel like a suspect in a murder investigation.
“Wasn’t her death an accident, or is there a reason to believe there was foul play?” I asked, beginning to feel annoyed.
“An unfortunate accident,” he said. “Do you know if the deceased has any family? We need to notify next of kin.”
“Actually, no, I don’t,” I said, surprised at the fact that neither of us had mentioned our family during our short conversations. “Her husband passed away about a year ago, and no one came to visit, which I would expect if she had family, but I really don’t know. She never mentioned having children or siblings.”
“Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t any,” the detective said, closing his notebook and putting it back into his pocket with the pen. “You did say you were only acquaintances.”
“I didn’t really know her that well. We talked mostly about how much she enjoyed her visits to the nursing home where she went every day to talk with the old people. She was a very caring person.”
“I am asking in case there is someone who needs to be notified.”
“I imagine the people at the nursing home will miss her, and they should know what has happened to her. She was very fond of the old people there.”
“Thank you, Miss, you have been helpful.”
“Do you believe her death was accidental?” I asked, wondering if I should be worried about intruders.
“We can never be sure until the autopsy is completed,” the detective said. “Would you know the name of the nursing home she frequented?”
“No, I don’t. I do know where it’s located. I would be grateful if you would allow me to tell the residents she was close to, why Diana won’t be coming back.”
“My name is Roberto, Detective Roberto Diaz, and I’ll give you my business card so you can call me directly if you find out anything of interest, and you may be the conveyor of the bad news at the home. However, call me with the name of the nursing home when you find it. It is my responsibility to notify the family if we find any.”
“I will, sir. I have your card.”
Early the next morning, I called work to let them know I would be a bit late, and I walked toward the cathedral near the park. I knew the nursing home was in that general direction. I stood in front of the cathedral and looked around. There, right where I was standing, I saw a small sign on a wooden door on a red brick wall that had the name, House of Mercy. That had to be the place, I thought, and I knocked on the door. After a short wait, the door was opened by a kind-looking nun dressed in a black habit and a white covering over her head.
She looked me up and down and asked me what my business was. I wondered if I could speak with the person in charge, as I had some sensitive news.
“Come with me,” she said, as she walked me through a long passageway to an office. “That would be me,” she answered and offered me a seat. “I am Mother Superior, and you may call me Sister Francis.” The office was lovely, with an antique desk and shelves filled with books, most of which I recognized as classics of a different era. I was curious about what Diana found so appealing in that home filled with old, ailing people.
Mother Superior gave me with an inquisitive look waiting for me to state my business. I asked her if she was familiar with a woman who regularly came to speak with the patients.
“Of course, Mrs. Rose,” she answered with a smile. “She’s a wonderful person.”
“Yes, she was.” I noticed the change in her face as she heard me refer to Diana in the past tense. “I regret to inform you that she passed away last night. An unfortunate accident.”
Obviously stricken, the nun stood up and automatically grabbed the rosary she kept in her deep, skirt pocket. Wandering around her office, holding the rosary, she asked me what had happened to her. “She was well-loved by many of our residents.”
“I really don’t have much information, as I was out of town when it happened. I arrived early yesterday morning to find the police and paramedics loading her body into an ambulance. I was in shock, of course. The police only told me that she must have fallen and hit her head on the corner of her desk. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage; I was told.”
“God bless her soul,” Sister Francis said.
“I was wondering if you think it might be proper for me to talk with those people she was closest to, and let them know why she won’t be coming back?”
“Yes, of course, I think it would be proper for the news to come from someone who knew her. They are just finishing their lunch and heading back to their rooms or out to the patio. I will give you the names of those who were closest to her, and the novices in the dining room can point them out to you.”
The names were all of women, except for the last one. I found the residents seemed to be quite happy to be there. Some dressed in clothing of their era. One woman wore a feather boa around her neck and shoulders and bright lipstick of the same pink as the feathers. The lipstick was slightly askew, and her nails were manicured and painted in the same color as her lipstick. She was very sad to hear the news, but from her purse, produced pictures of herself as a beautiful young woman who’d been in show business for a time. It was hard to recognize the fresh face on the image with the deeply lined and softly sagging skin of the woman in front of me. I began to understand why they lived in the past. It was the same way with the next woman, although she had a stern demeanor. She also showed me pictures of herself, dressed in a military uniform from when she had served in WW2 as a WAC (Women’s Army Corps). Again, the same contrast.
Finally, I asked about the man listed, as I saw several men walking in the dining room. The novice led me along a corridor to an open door. “He doesn’t come to the dining room.”
I found the door to his room open, so I walked in, calling him by his name softly so as not to wake him up too abruptly. I was told by the novice that he had been a doctor and liked to be addressed as Dr. Millet. The man was a gaunt skeleton, seemingly disappearing underneath the sheet that covered his body. I was surprised when he spoke in a strong baritone voice asking me to come in. As I did with the others, I asked him if he knew Diana, and he simply closed his eyes in response. I was afraid he’d fallen asleep and began to leave the room.
“Is she all right?” He asked, almost guessing what I was going to tell him. As I told him about the accident, a silent tear escaped his weary eyes. He asked me to reach for a photograph he had in his nightstand drawer, knowing I would see a handsome young man in the picture. He wanted to hold it and show me. He told me he had been trained as a doctor, pointing at the young man in the image. There were two children next to him. A young girl. maybe ten or eleven years old and a younger child, a boy, perhaps around three years old.
He pointed at the girl in the picture, his tears flowing freely. He said that she was his daughter, Diana Millet Rose. “John Rose, her husband passed away a year ago and she insisted, against my advice, to continue to live in that apartment alone. She was always an independent girl.” He again closed his eyes while holding the picture to his chest, and this time I was sure he was asleep.
Nevertheless, I asked him who the boy was. The old doctor closed his eyes again, but this time I decided to wait. As before, he opened them again, and this time his voice was shallow and shaky.
“I dreamed he came to see me last night, but he looked like a full-grown man. I almost didn’t recognize him.”
“Who is the boy in the picture? Is he the same person you saw last night?”
“He’s my boy Garth, the one who went away to Australia as a teenager and didn’t come back.”
Again, the old man closed his eyes, and he looked even more gaunt than before, his eyes falling deeper into his sockets.
“But, it wasn’t a dream, doctor. I think you really saw him last night. Did he talk to you?”
“He was angry. He needed money, yes, he was here, my Garth. He was always angry and jealous of his sister, who managed to marry someone with money while he never had any.”
This time when he closed his eyes, his mouth relaxed open, and I knew he was asleep, the picture still held to his chest.
I hurried out, thanking Mother Superior for her kindness, and I rushed to the police station where I could speak in person with Detective Ruiz. I had a story to tell him about Garth Millet.
Selected from Time after Time: and other stories