By Martina Reaves
I wandered from my second-floor office down to Fourth Street to indulge myself after a particularly difficult afternoon. Even though it was February, the afternoon sun blazed, the air was still, and the sidewalks were crowded with folks pretending it was spring.
As I dodged shoppers, office workers, and parents with toddlers, I noticed an old man wedged between a tree and a telephone pole. He leaned awkwardly against the tree; the front wheels of his walker were on the sidewalk and the back two on the dirt in front of him. I watched as he struggled to stand up and finally realized he was stuck.
“Can I help you?” I asked quietly, so as not to embarrass him.
“Please. I need to get up on my walker.”
I held his elbow to help him stand upright, but he didn’t have the strength to shift his weight from the tree to my arm. He was at least 6’4,” with long arms and a big chest, but his legs were almost useless. My smaller, fifty-five-year-old frame couldn’t support him and I panicked a little, thinking I might cause him to fall.
“We need help,” I said. “Hold on.”
Just then, two women walked out of the futon shop, laughing and talking, oblivious to the problem. “Excuse me,” I said, nodding my head toward the old man. “Can you help?”
They joined me, and working together, the three of us managed to get him upright. We walked him over to a bench, where he sat in the sun looking completely content. He tapped his Hush Puppy loafers to some inner rhythm and folded his hands on his lap.
“My wife is parking the car,” he said. “She’ll be here soon. You don’t have to worry about me.”
None of us budged. We hovered.
“Do you think his wife is really coming?” one of the women whispered. “Or is he just lost?”
“Maybe he has Alzheimer’s and nobody is going to come at all,” the other said.
“I got you into this,” I said. “You don’t have to stay. I’ll wait.”
They shook their heads no and the three of us stood in a huddle as the minutes went by. We watched every gray-haired woman on the street, hoping she’d be the one.
“I’ve got clients coming,” I said to one of the women. “I hope his wife gets here soon.”
Then, just up the street, I noticed a husky young man in a crisp white shirt acting like an usher at a wedding, his head held high and his arm up to escort the woman at his side. She wore a pink hat, an elegant three-quarter length coat and soft leather shoes. Her hair was dyed brown; her lips were bright red.
“Is this your husband, ma’am?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “We’re going to Bette’s Oceanview Diner for lunch, even though there’s actually no view.”
She tottered toward the diner door up the street, looking like she would fall over any minute.
I looked at my watch. Almost 3. I called out to her, “The restaurant’s closed but you can get take-out right here.”
She turned slowly and shuffled back toward us.
I asked her escort if he knew her. “No,” he shrugged. “I saw her walking down the street and thought she needed help.”
“We’ll be fine,” she said. “Thank you all for helping us. Don’t worry. You can go now.”
My thoughts raced. Should we go about our business? I couldn’t believe that she drove a car. How could she get him into it? What if he fell?
“We can’t just leave them,” one of the women said.
The four of us looked at each other. “Let’s tell the folks inside what’s happening,” I said, and we went into Bette’s To Go and mentioned to the counter person that the couple might need help later.
Back on the sidewalk, we mumbled things like, “I guess that’s all we can do,” said our goodbyes to each other and the old folks and went our separate ways.
I trudged up the stairs to my office, a little breathless, and thought for the hundredth time that I’d better get back to the gym.
“Hey, what happened with that old couple last week?” I asked a week later at Bette’s To Go when I was greeted by the same counter person–a twenty-something woman with long hair swooped into a wrap at the top of her head with a fake yellow daisy. Her pierced ears, eyebrows, nose, and lips flashed with silver.
“They stayed a few hours. She drank coffee. He drank beer. And then she went off to get the car and picked him up. It was scary watching him get into the car.”
“I bet. Do they come here often?”
“Yeah, maybe once a month. We kinda look out for them.”
“I’m glad,” I said, grabbing my latte.
Spring arrived with warm, sunny afternoons. One day, I finished work early and went down to Bette’s for tea. The old couple was there again at an outside table, she in a forest green dress with pearls and a black pillbox hat, he slightly unkempt–in need of a haircut and a shave–his walker beside him.
I sat at the table next to them and said hello. They greeted me, although I wasn’t certain they remembered me. I read my New Yorker. They sat companionably, and after a while, he nodded off.
She leaned over. “I remember you. You helped Johnny a few months ago when he was having trouble with his walker.”
I lowered my magazine and smiled. “You’re right. I’m Kim Carey,” I said. “I’m a divorce mediator. I work around the corner, which is why you see me here all the time. What’s your name?”
“Amalia Mae Suffield,” she said. “It’s Southern. I was born in Virginia, but I moved with Johnny to San Francisco in the 40s and never went back. We’ve lived in the Bay Area ever since.” She pulled out an embroidered fan and shocking pink roses fluttered back and forth in the still air.
“Johnny lives in a care home in Berkeley,” she continued, “but I’m still in our house on Carlotta. I see him every day and take him out because I think it’s good for him. But if it were up to him, he’d just sit and watch TV. You know how old men are.”
I realized that she lived in my neighborhood but decided not to mention it. I just listened and nodded. Even though I don’t do much of anything, my face seems to make people talk.
“I like to take care of myself,” she said. “Fix my hair, dress up. It keeps me young.”
“It’s working,” I said. “You look great.”
“When I met Johnny, he was so handsome. And I didn’t look too bad myself,” she laughed, blue eyes twinkling. “We raised our children in San Francisco. He was an accountant. I did everything else. We moved to Berkeley when he retired because we wanted a slower life.”
Despite my intention to get back to my magazine, I started asking questions. “How are you doing, living in your home alone?”
“Oh, it’s fine,” she said, but then she hesitated. “Actually, it’s not easy at all. There’s all the upkeep that Johnny used to do.”
“How do you manage?”
“My neighbors. I don’t like to ask for help, but they offer, and when they do, I bake them chocolate chip cookies and zucchini bread.”
The sun dropped behind the building across the street on its way to a sunset on the Bay and the air suddenly chilled. Johnny woke up.
“We’ve got to go now,” she said.
“Can I help you to your car?” I asked.
“Yes, dear,” she said. She turned to her husband. “Johnny, sit right here. I’ll be right back with the car.”
Her wrinkled hands pushed against the arms of the chair as she slowly stood and straightened up. She took my arm and we made our way up the street to her 1990 Toyota Corolla. A chartreuse tennis ball was stuck on the antenna. The inside was meticulously clean, except for the books on the back seat. I noticed Alice Munro’s Runaway, and thought we could talk about it the next time I saw her. I helped her out into the street to the driver’s door; she thanked me, got in, and drove back to pick up her husband.
Several months later, as the June sun valiantly attempted to shine through fog, I saw her sitting outside Bette’s alone, sipping tea.
“Where’s Johnny?” I asked after we exchanged greetings.
“He’s not able to get around right now. He’s had a flare-up with his legs and won’t be able to walk at all for a while.”
She sat quietly for a moment. “Listen to me,” she said. “There’s nothing more boring than old people talking about their aches and pains. Let’s talk about something else.”
She pointed at the Chronicle. “Those right-wing nuts trying to make abortion illegal again,” she said. “It makes me furious.”
“Me, too,” I said. “I never expected to be back in this position again, fighting to keep it legal.”
“I had an illegal abortion when I was very young. Sixteen.” She looked so sad, I thought I should change the subject, but she continued. “I never want anyone to go through what I did. I knew nothing about sex and found myself pregnant. My parents were horrified. Our doctor sent me to someone who was really rough with me. Nobody told me what was going on. And when I came home, my parents never said a single word. We simply never talked about it.”
“Awful,” I said.
“It was terrible,” she said. She looked at her watch. “Oh, no, I’m late. I have to go see Johnny before he goes to physical therapy.” She powdered her nose and freshened her lipstick, I escorted her to her car, and she was gone.
Months later, I was walking through piles of burgundy, orange, and yellow leaves on my way home from the market. On impulse, I turned onto Carlotta Street and saw Amalia shuffling out her front door.
“Hello, Mrs. Suffield,” I said. She looked a little confused and walked toward me, squinting.
“Oh hello, Kim. I couldn’t see you from so far away.”
I noticed boxes on the porch and several young men loading a U-Haul. “Are you moving?”
“My Johnny passed away,” she said. Tears welled in her eyes as she reached for a handkerchief in her pocket. She gestured toward a man on the porch. “My son’s helping me organize. I’m moving to Lake Park. Do you know it?”
I shook my head no.
“It’s a retirement community on the lake in Oakland. I have friends there. I’ll have my own apartment and eat in the dining room with the other folks who live there. My son wanted me to come to Seattle, but I want to be where I’ve always been. This is my community.”
“I’m so sorry about Johnny,” I said. “But it sounds like the move might be good for you.”
“I can’t wait to stop cooking,” she laughed. “I’ve made at least two meals a day for sixty-six years. I won’t miss cooking one bit.”
We spoke a moment longer and this time, she hugged me good-bye.
The next week, I passed by her house again. Painters crawled all over it; counter tops leaned on the porch; new appliances filled the driveway. I could just see the ad: “1515 Carlotta. 2BR/2 bath. Chef’s kitchen opening to deck. Granite counters, designer paints. In coveted North Berkeley neighborhood.” I imagined Mrs. Suffield wearing her pink hat, sitting outside catching the last rays of fall sunshine with her friends at Lake Park, telling stories and laughing.
Shuffling through the fall leaves, I felt my stiff knees and wondered how long it would take my house to warm up when I got home.